A driver retention crisis

by Derek Clouthier

RED DEER, Alta. The importance of driver retention cannot be overstated with the expectation of a profound driver shortage looming on the Canadian horizon.

A study completed by the Conference Board of Canada in February 2013 titled ‘Understanding the Truck Driver Supply and Demand Gap and its Implications for the Canadian Economy’ estimated that by the year 2020 the nationwide gap between supply and demand for drivers would be a shortfall of 24,700, or about 14% of the anticipated driver population, with the possibility of that number being pushed to over 33,000.

The study also indicated that the largest deficit would be seen in Alberta, with a shortage of 6,200 drivers. 

Mike Luki, who worked for four companies in as many weeks, believes several trucking businesses suffer from a 'large disconnect' with their drivers.
Mike Luki, who worked for four companies in as many weeks, believes several trucking businesses suffer from a ‘large disconnect’ with their drivers.

A Red Deer, Alta. man, who requested that Truck West refer to him simply as Mike ‘Luki’, knows all about the importance of driver retention.

Having learned to drive in B.C.’s Okanogan area in the bush, Luki said it was his battle against addiction problems that led him to get his Class 1 licence and eventually relocate to Wild Rose country.

“I hauled in Vancouver before moving to Alberta and worked in the oil patch,” Luki said. “I started hauling lime and then sand, but settled in bulk fluid chemicals.”

During his time in Northern Alberta, Luki said he fell through a set of stairs while on a hydraulic fracturing site and broke his shoulder, but continued to work until the spring break-up.

“I’m a loyal driver if I have respect for and from my employer,” he said. “I love to drive and do about 75-80,000 kms a year in personal travel. My dad was an amazing driver and taught me a respect for the road you don’t find in schools.”

A couple of years ago, however, Luki found himself in the unfamiliar predicament of quitting four separate employers during a 30-day period.

“The first one I had worked for a while when the owner started cheating hours and finding ways to gouge money out of his drivers,” Luki claimed. “So I quit.”

Next, Luki found himself quitting another company after only one week of employment due to what he said was poor attitudes from management and a habit of pushing drivers to “run bad logs to get more loads than trucks available.”

Two days later, he started another job. He quit the next day.

“I was asked to do a 50-km round-trip with a truck that has a leak in the air dryer,” Luki said. “I was told it would be fine and just to ignore the alarm and I’d make it because (the truck) made it yesterday.”

Finally, after taking a week off, Luki quit his fourth job after two days because drivers were being treated differently, with some being given permission to do things that others were not.

“I started with Oculus Transport in Grande Prairie and stayed with them until my shoulder surgery,” Luki said. “They were the best transport company I had ever worked for…I miss that job.”

Luki said all the companies he had quit during that one-month span had one thing in common.

“They all had a large disconnect with their driver core and a lack of communication (and) listening to what’s going on in the field,” he said.

Terry Shaw, executive director of the Manitoba Trucking Association (MTA), said his organization has taken steps to improve driver safety.

“One of the most important items we’ve done in Manitoba is the creation of our RPM (Risk. Professionally Managed) Trucking Safety Program,” Shaw said.

“This program is designed to created education and other supports for all employees in the trucking industry. Some of our most vulnerable employees are our drivers, so the recognition from our members that this is an item of significance confirms their interest in protecting and retaining our drivers.”

Shaw said that they are finding that in Manitoba, trucking companies are operating what the MTA calls ‘finishing programs’, where someone with a Class 1 licence, but not necessarily the skill or education to operate independently, gets the chance to receive some industry training so they can get to what would traditionally be considered minimum employable standards.

“While some might suggest this is primarily a recruitment tool, we would suggest that these people, were it not for these programs, would possibly be lost to other jobs or industries, so we applaud the companies willing and able to invest in these people,” said Shaw.

The MTA also partners with the Manitoba Public Insurance’s Special Risk Extension group on its entry level driver training program, something Shaw said is more than just a recruitment tool.

“The retention element of this process is that prospective employees meet, potentially, a variety of employers prior to training or testing for their Class 1 licence,” he said.

“This means – and it’s not a perfect system, but it’s a good one – that some people who come to the industry wanting to work as truck drivers learn, or are taught, that maybe they aren’t right for the career, or vice-versa. This cuts down on people training, getting a licence and then struggling to find work, or finding work and they leaving it shortly after starting.”

Shaw said companies in his province have started engaging their drivers through social media and other communication platforms to help retain employees, as well as considering tailored truck specifications, pay packages and home times to meet driver needs.

The Saskatchewan Trucking Association (STA) also knows the importance of driver retention.

“The STA cannot overstate the need to retain good drivers in our industry,” said STA executive director Al Rosseker, “and there are a number of initiatives that are being undertaken to make drivers more comfortable in the working environment.”

“Truck transport companies understand that when you lose a driver it can cost as much as $10,000-$15,000 in lost productivity, training and customer relations to replace that driver,” Rosseker added. “It’s incumbent on all of us in industry to celebrate our drivers – and the vast support network of companies – if we are to succeed. It’s a hackneyed phrase, but: Our people are our greatest asset.”

Louise Yako, British Columbia Trucking Association president and CEO, said that although driver retention is an issue for some companies, much of the most quantitative evidence on the issue has come from surveys conducted in the US, which could only be validated in B.C. by anecdotal information.

One study came from the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and it indicated that there was nearly 100% driver turnover for long-haul truckers.

Forbes business magazine ran a piece that said this type of turnover “is disastrous for drivers,” as it results in drivers living paycheque-to-paycheque and not accumulating enough retirement savings. It goes on to say that driver retention has ‘defined the trucking industry for years, and there has been little or no overall improvement.’

Luki believes that driver retention all starts with company management.

“I think (companies should) involve drivers in more than just driving, listen to drivers’ ideas in a serious manner and fairness and treating veteran drivers great and giving them some real incentive to teach the new guys,” he said. “Management needs to realize that a driver can lose his career or months of salary due to maintenance and repairs not being done. Fines and accidents are always placed on the driver first, so if the company makes it more nerve-racking and dangerous, it makes for a sad work environment.”

Luki also agrees with a move toward paying drivers by the hour.

“When I first started getting paid by the hour it made you slow down and drive smarter because you’re not under as much pressure to make kilometres for a paycheque,” he said. “If the road conditions are bad, you don’t mind (taking) an extra hour to get there because you make more for being safer.”

Luki said companies needs to create a “learning culture rather than a punishment culture.”

“If management doesn’t appreciate what their A drivers do for the company, it’s hard to get the B drivers to try and be A drivers, because what’s the point?” Luki said. “We all want to make money, but we want to be around to enjoy it, too.”

Luki said he can no longer drive long hours due to the length of time he had to wait to get surgery done on his injured shoulder, and he is now trying to get some training and upgrading in heavy equipment.

“I like machines, and driving them,” he said. “I have become an excellent driver over the years because of my passion for the job. As a guy who enjoys learning everything I can about what I do, I constantly strive to learn new ways to things better.”

Luki admitted that he doesn’t like making money for what he views as bad owners or unorganized companies, and said that his time is valuable.

“Life is too short to waste making money for someone you don’t like,” he said. “I would always take a job for less money from a company that treats me great than tons of money from (someone who wouldn’t).”

Shaw said the MTA is looking to do a series of videos in 2016 on issues that impact the province’s drivers, and could therefore have a bearing on retention; issue such as rest areas, parking and the economic benefits each province receives from the trucking industry and its drivers.

With many from the Baby Boomer generation eyeing retirement, several of whom make up the current list of what Luki would describe as ‘A drivers,’ retaining the new crop of young ‘B drivers’ has never been more crucial in both Canada and the US, where, if predictions are correct, will be in dire need of drivers.

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  • Hourly pay is the only decent way that companies are going to retain driver,s I know of no office personnel who are not getting paid by the hour ask anyone if they would sit at a truck stop for 36 hours of reset time and not draw a cent to send home to their family but get back on the road and go like hell to get those miles in so his /her family can live. When a driver breaks down in a company truck he is not being paid while he waits for repairs or a tow. Waiting at a dock where the shipper is rude or receiver is there but refuses to unload a driver until the next day all with no pay because they can many many occurrences like this occur everyday and it makes for a miserable lifestyle for anyone wanting to enter the industry companies compete for loads at low rates because they do not pay drivers what they are worth.

  • I couldn’t agree more with the above comment. Let me add that I have worked at a number of companies over 20 yrs of driving,and the number of dispatchers that I have had to endure is mind boggling.Until these companies hold them to the same standards we are expected to uphold you will always have driver retention problems.The companies view their drivers just as a truck number,with no consideration of our time.100 mph dispatches is common,no consideration for traffic and weather and construction.Every place I have worked with the exception of the big companies expected you to back date your log book.In my humble opinion if the DOT ever truly checked the companies practices they would put most of them out of business.In closing I would say there is no driver shortage just a shortage of good companies to work for.

  • Trucking companies make big dollars…..share the wealth. The professional drivers of today are confronted with a landslide of red tape and more and more regulation and mountains of paperwork. Throw in the demands of the job which be hell. No wonder young people are choosing other job paths. Repeated massive job loses with no regard to effect on families and personal health are common place within the energy sector which drives the construction industry and general freight service sector. Stability job security and good pay are what’s at the core of driver shortages. If a truck makes 2000 in a day the driver should get 500. But that’s not the case. He’s more likely to see 250 or if lucky 300. So start paying and they’ll start staying.