Trucking needs mentors, not just trainers

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With good reason, I’ve been ranting a lot in this column lately. Trucking is in a bit of a mess, so I don’t apologize. But I want to tone it down a little here and speak in a more positive voice. About driver mentoring to be specific. I believe the mentor idea is an inherently good one that could change things for the better but I wonder if it’s properly understood.

This idea arises in part due to the massive response I’ve had from my Driver Inc. blog back in April. There were a lot of comments online, maybe more than I’ve ever received, but also a slew of private emails. The majority of all those comments have come from drivers, not surprisingly, because part of that particular rant concerned the fast-rising number of crashes on certain of our highways.

Inexperienced, poorly trained drivers seem to be the cause, and there’s massive agreement about that from veteran drivers, many of whom say they’re so afraid to drive those roads that they simply won’t do it in winter conditions. Or at all. Some have quit trucking altogether.

highway congestion
(Photo: iStock)

There’s nothing new in that. That frustration, those fears, have been building for years now.

As my left-coast friend Mark Zambrzycki colorfully wrote in an email to me last summer, “Sometimes I drive a serpentine course, going around all the wrecks. There was once a time such a thing was almost unthinkable.”

He’s a pro, with 40 years at the wheel, and like countless others he bemoans the disappearance of the old days and the spirit of a driving community that put safety high on the priority ladder. In fact that was just an assumption because they all had serious skills and an actual understanding of the road. Those guys didn’t hit the ditch very often at all, and if they did it was probably to save the life of some idiot on four wheels.

“I never sought to get rich overnight,” Mark went on. “Of all the stand-up guys with whom I have been honored to work, everyone was doing it the same way. Every kilometer was what mattered. It mattered that everyone within my field of vision was a little less unsafe, if only because I was on watch.”

Sentiments like that are incredibly common in my inbox, though rarely if ever stated so eloquently. The bugger can write.

Leveraging veteran drivers

It was another email last year that got me thinking about mentorship and how we might improve things, partly by exploiting the skills of veterans, guys who may already have retired.

I haven’t been able to contact the writer of that note so I won’t use his name here but he too is a four-decade veteran, 20 of them as an OTR driver, the rest as an operations or fleet manager. Here’s what he wrote:

“I retired from trucking in 2020 and mostly because this industry has worn me down,” he said. “My pet peeve is the quality of drivers on the roads these days and the lack of skills they are being taught. I have a side hustle I do now where I provide one-on-one driver training to my last employer. The reason? They can’t find drivers with the skills I told them to look for. So I offered to come back part time and train them myself and give them the skills to succeed. One driver at a time.”

It occurred to me then that he might just have something there, not so much for the big fleets that can afford to establish and maintain formal mentoring programs, or ’finishing’ schools, but for the little guys with few resources. It’s no small task to take on a rookie and finish the training that no school can cover completely. Why not hire a retired veteran who doesn’t want the day-to-day struggle any more but would be happy to supplement his income with occasional mentoring?

Mentoring vs. training

So what is mentoring as opposed to training?

My big two-volume dictionary, improbably named The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary at 2672 pages, defines mentor very simply — “An experienced and trusted counsellor”. That doesn’t sound like a trainer, does it?

Schneider National, the Wisconsin mega-fleet, has an elaborate mentoring program as you might expect. They define the role this way: “A driver mentor is an experienced driver who temporarily [four weeks] teams with a new driver to help them ease into professional driving.”

I asked another friend, Mountain Transport Institute president Andy Roberts in Castlegar, B.C., to distinguish between trainer and mentor, not least because his excellent driver-training school teaches both.

“I think a trainer is teaching you a completely new skill set such as driving a truck when there is no previous experience,” he told me. “It follows a structured procedure to develop the driver through various steps and likely over several weeks.

“A mentor is going to support a new employee in polishing their skills and teaching some company- or product-specific procedures as well as help them adjust to company policies that may be different than other places they have worked. If you are mentoring an experienced driver then this can be quite straightforward; if you are mentoring a new driver then it will be more in-depth and more involved as in a longer period of time.”

The best mentors

And then he said something quite brilliant:

“I always recommend to carriers that they choose their mentors based on which of your drivers you would like to clone.

“The best driver mentors are the drivers who are professional to the core and are very clear about there being a right way and a wrong way. This is especially important when dealing with new drivers as they will very much imitate what they are being taught about their job and the company. I also recommend where possible that new drivers spend time with more than one mentor as it will likely produce a more rounded finished product as different mentors will emphasize different points.”

He notes that paying a mentor a fair wage can be a contentious matter. There are many ways, some seemingly better than others. But I’ll save that discussion for later.

For now, I’ll just say that we need real mentors. We have an undeniable problem with the quality of our new drivers, and thus with highway safety, and we can’t just blame Driver Inc. fleets. They’re not the only ones with iffy characters at the wheel. Nobody else is going to fix this for us so we have to dig deep into our own resources to find a cure. The thing is, we have those resources already.

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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to

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  • AMEN!!!! The quality of drivers has fallen. When I started experienced drivers were happy to help me. When I reached the stage, that is was my turn, to help the new drivers, the new drivers were NOT willing to accept help. The attitude of “knowing it all” has led to the disaster unfolding on our highways. The company owners are also directly responsible for not teaching as well. This owner phenomenon in not new. The owners have always done that, but the drivers looked after teaching the newbies, did not matter if it was a different carrier’s driver. The new drivers attitude needs to change and the veterans will again embrace our historic role, and mentor them once again.

  • This the best thing you have every written this why we need to keep long term drivers in the industry. Maybe as training coaching of new drivers. I have been very hard on the trucking industry. I feel if develop a proper set of programs and plan correctly .We can make driving truck much better and safer for everyone. We need to not allow any new drivers in the first 3 years any type of driver inc unless under own running rights and insurance. The industry needs to figure how to keep long term drivers in the industry through time off hourly pay . I would fully support and be glad to be part of any plan to keep disabled drivers in the truck or return as training or coaching after being sick or injured

  • I have been driving for over 40 years. I retired but I come back to part-time driving. But I missed the road. When I started driving we went with older men who taught us and told us what to do and what not to do. Today there is a lack of that. Nobody talks to anybody out here in the road. And there are good guys starting out I take my hat off to them. But we do need mentors in trucking.

  • Yes, there needs to be more on-road mentoring, I called it coaching when I worked for Highland Transport years ago.
    Everything from teaching them to “listen to the truck” instead of staring at the dash, to knowing what to take for a week OTR.
    Training at most schools just gets the new driver a license and very little real OTR stuff!
    The one real peeve I had when I worked part-time at a school was using a “Bob-tail” tractor to teach what they called “Heavy Transmission” for drivers wanting to get their “DZ” ! Anyone who has driven a bobtail, as well as a fully loaded dump truck (I have), will tell you there is no comparison and about 60,000 pounds difference in the weight.! Plus running bobtail you only have front wheel brakes!
    I have even offered to donate my time to a school near me to pass on some coaching but they told me “MELT wouldn’t allow that!” Funny, I always thought teaching more than the bare minimum was better!

    • @ Beverley Plummer….(I quote you) “Plus running bobtail you only have front wheel brakes!” (end-quote). Sorry, that’s either a typo or you misunderstand the purpose of the “brake-limiting valve”.
      In days of old (until +/- 1995), tractors did not have any brakes at all on the steer-wheels, due to the myth that they caused jack-knifes!
      When brakes on steer-wheels became mandatory, the tractors were initially fitted with a manual brake-limiting valve. When manually activated, that valve would restrict the amount of air-pressure going to the steer-wheel brakes, so as to reduce the risk of the m locking-up, during a hard-brake application. A number of years later, the system was improved with the limiting valve engaging automatically whenever the tractor was placed in gear without releasing the trailer parking brake, i.e. driving the tractor in bob-tail mode.

  • The distinction between Training and Mentoring is an important one for both the driver who has knowledge to impart AND the student who has something to learn. In Mentoring, there is more space for dialogue and guidance to navigate and parse through information to get the place of understanding whereas in Training, there is less need for dialogue because it’s about committing the right processes and procedures to memory. These are two different learning experiences and both are needed.

  • We need graduated licensing for new commercial drivers. Now your first thought is probably that it won’t work because companies don’t want to pay 2 drivers but that’s because you think like a car driver. If you think like a truck driver, it absolutely will work. I have spent 7 years trying to get the attention of our politicians to make the changes needed to bring us safely into the future since so many of our laws in Trucking are outdated and no longer relevant. Unfortunately I had to take my website down because I couldn’t afford to keep it up. I am happy to send you a plain text document with the entire website including graduated licensing if you think you can help make a difference. My email is

  • Right on the money Rolf, I have been a supporter for this for decades. The problem is when a mentor is in the truck dispatch sees them as a second driver and expect them to turn as a team, same as they do winemaker a driver trainer is out with them. My son who has been a driver trainer still mentors drivers over the phone, they often call asking him for advice on a given situation. The system works well when companies, drivers and mentors work together.

  • As a retired medical laboratory technologist of 40 years, I am now changing careers and am a student at a driving school to be a Class 1 driver.
    I know that I will not be an accomplished driver at the end of this 8 week program and am hoping to find one of the companies that offer finishing program for new graduates. That is the only way to learn how to do a skill, be beside a more experienced person that can give you tips as you are performing the task at hand.
    My entire career was very regulated by proper and complete training on new generation of biomedical analyzers every 5 years; we were trained properly by qualified company trainers until we showed complete competence, only then were we allowed to be signed off. That is the only way to learn how to operate expensive pieces of equipment or vehicles.
    I realize that I am starting out at the bottom of the pay structure as a new driver but that is how it has to be, and I have to put in a few years before
    I get my ‘dream job’. Actually I’m not yet sure what that will be, lol.
    There appears to be a lot of different types of jobs in the commercial transport industry, just like the medical laboratory field in which I had a varied career around the world.
    I’m busy watching the job boards already and most employers want experience, which isn’t possible for a new grad like me. So they had better have an open mind in implementing a finishing program for us in order to solve the shortage of qualified and competent drivers that is the reality today.
    I feel that the implementation of the MELT program only 2 years ago, is a necessary step in making this industry operate with drivers that know what they should do at all times in these large vehicles.
    I’m quite frankly surprised that it took this long for companies to realize that this was the only way to keep mistakes(accidents) by drivers to an absolute minimum.
    I am in Kelowna and am hoping to find a driver mentor in August. Send one my way if you know of a person in my area.
    Also, I see that 2 person team drivers go on runs to the US for different length rotations. I was thinking that might be a way for new drivers to be properly mentored, while on the job. Is this possible? I appreciate any feedback. Thanks.

  • Thank you Rolf. Can wait to share this with all the companies we deal with!
    Take care and have a great summer.

  • Yes, I agree with Kim Richardson, Mentoring would go a long way with Training. Nothing beats experience, We Driver’s with 40 years of over the roads experience, accident free, comes with plenty of tips and valuable experiences to be shared and provide valuable added fundamentals in achieving an exciting Career in the Trucking Industry. By the way, Hello to Kim, a good friend from years gone by.