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.
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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