TORONTO, Ont. – With at least three big American carriers launching recruitment campaigns on Canadian turf, and huge transborder companies like Schneider National announcing plans to double the U.S.-based company’s 2004 pay increase (and increase time at home opportunities) it looks like Canadian drivers and O/Os are fast becoming a hot commodity on the cross border market.
“We’ve found that Canadian O/Os are generally better at crossing the border – better with the paperwork, because they do it on most every load they carry south and north, ” says Jim Reeves of Mercer Transportation Company, based in Louisville, Ky.
Reeves is director of international operations and the company’s point man for its soon-to-be launched recruitment campaign in Ontario, and the only U.S. representative who would speak to Truck News on the record.
“Many of our U.S. O/Os are intimidated by border crossing, even though we have about 500 who do it regularly. But Canadian O/Os just tend to be a whole lot smarter about it because they do it more often.”
Mercer, originally founded in Texas, is a truckload carrier specializing in the transport of construction materials and metals via flatbed trailers.
The company has enough customer presence in Ontario to merit a dispatch office in Burlington and a campaign to recruit more Canadian O/Os, says Reeves.
“We have our largest manufacturing base for Canada in St. Thomas,” says Reeves.
“And we have made a concerted effort to expand our business in Canada. With 90 dispatch offices in every major city in the U.S. we’ve had to expand. And the only place to go is up north. So it makes sense that we hire more from that that area.”
The company currently has 17 O/Os working for it in the general Toronto area, but it’s looking to hire 10 more Canadian O/Os immediately, and about 50 more in the next couple of years via truck stop recruitment campaigns, advertisements and bonuses for drivers who bring in new recruits, says Reeves.
“We don’t want to overhire though, because we want to be able to provide enough work for the O/Os we do have,” Reeves says.
Reeves is confident Canadian truckers will be attracted by the company’s high transborder rates, paid in U.S. dollars, its credentials as a Free and Secure Trade partner (FAST) and its willingness to cover the cost of new O/Os becoming FAST-approved as well.
“We’ll take them through the application process and we’ll pay their fee to join as well,” says Reeves.
Freight capacity is high and drivers are at a premium, especially for U.S. carriers, Reeves admits. And the largest carriers – the ones most likely to be carrying transborder shipments, are the ones being hit hardest, according to the American Trucking Associations chief economist Bob Costello. Recently Costello reported line-haul driver turnover for America’s largest truckload carriers (those with a minimum $30 million annual revenue) hit a whopping 121 per cent in the third quarter of 2004, up from 116 per cent in the second quarter.
And while small truckload carriers saw driver turnover fall from 84 per cent in the second quarter to 79 per cent in the third quarter, both ended the year with fewer drivers than they started with.
Add to that a cumulative truck tonnage increase of 6.5 per cent in November 2004, over the same 11-month period in 2003, as well as a prediction by Costello that the tonnage increase trend will continue into 2005, and you have a problem. The kind of problem that forces U.S. carriers to send recruiters to Canada.
So are Canadian carriers, who themselves are no strangers to trucker shortages and turnovers, worried they’ll lose drivers and O/Os to the lure of American dollars and recruitment campaigns?
“Companies have been coming across the border for a long time, ” says Dan Einwechter, president of Challenger Motor Freight.
“If Schneider increases pay, or if another company does to attract drivers and O/Os, they’ll just have to raise their rates. And that means we can, and then pay our own drivers more.”
Einwechter says Canadian drivers and O/Os who do opt to take on American employment will just be responding to the “new guy phenomena.”
“At Challenger we have a whole range of things to offer – including our equipment, good routes and a new stellar site at our new terminal in Cambridge, which will make it so bloody easy for owner/operators to get processed through the yard we’ll have people knocking down our door to work for us.”
In short, Einwechter is not worried.
Neither is Rob Penner, vice-president of operations for Bison Transport.
“I think Canadian carriers have the advantage in that we have done all the paperwork and homework to make sure we understand the process of crossing the border, so our guys don’t have to spend a lot of time waiting there because their paperwork isn’t filled out correctly. Certainly that’s an advantage for our drivers. U.S. carriers have been much more relaxed in this area, as crossborder transport only accounts for about five per cent of their overall business. If I was one of those Canadian drivers considering working for a U.S. carrier, one of the first questions I would ask is whether that carrier is capable of dealing with all the ongoing changes at the border.”
Past experience leads Penner to believe that those who succumb to “the new guy phenomena” and go off to work for U.S. carriers will soon return to the Canadian fold.
“What we’ve experienced in our own fleet is that drivers who’ve gone to work for U.S. fleets have had a tough time getting home. Once they join they’re just more drivers in the U.S. system. And that means they won’t necessarily get a route home. With a Canadian carrier like us, we know that every load going south requires a load coming back up. “
As for the U.S. sawbuck versus the Canadian dollar, neither Penner nor Einwechter are particularly worried.
“The U.S. dollar isn’t worth much more than the Canadian dollar anymore,” says Einwechter.
Penner adds getting enough miles is more of an issue.
“One of the things we at Bison have excelled at is the number of miles we make available to our drivers. How many miles do you get and what do you have to do for them? That can make the difference more than the exchange rate.”
Still, both Penner and Einwechter acknowledge Canadian carriers must treat their drivers well if they don’t want to lose them to American companies.
“We will all have something to worry about if we don’t look after our drivers,” says Penner.
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