WINNIPEG, Man. – Within the next five to 10 years, the dearth of truck drivers is expected to become even more severe, with the majority of the existing labour pool approaching its retirement years.
However, to rectify this problem, Manitoba Public Insurance has collaborated with the Manitoba Trucking Association and a few member fleet operators, to develop a professional driving instruction program that has already attracted new candidates.
The MPI entry-level professional truck driver program finances the student with the tuition for the driving school instruction, which provides a minimum of 240 hours for an approved Class 1 licence. Once the driving school instruction is complete, the student is offered a three-month paid, onthe-job training and mentoring program with a participating transport company, followed by a further six months of mentoring from that same fleet. The trainee driver must commit to at least two years of driving service to qualify for a program that’s been given high praise by Bison Transport, one of the participating fleets.
“It’s a unique program, by giving back to rate-payers, the people that insure through MPI,” says Bison Transport’s director of safety and driver development, Garth Pitzel. “It’s the carriers that insure through MPI that can take advantage of this program. MPI is giving back to the industry by supporting and paying for this tuition.”
However, with an influx of willing students that appreciate the minimal investment and a new career, comes a new problem for the trucking industry. There appears to be a lack of in-cab trainers to coach and mentor the new drivers that complete the first portion of the program, the professional driving school instruction.
“Here’s somebody trying to help the industry, but unfortunately the industry can’t take full advantage of it, because they don’t have enough in-cab instructors. And then how do you go about developing an in-cab instructor?” Pitzel laments.
With the aging work force, Pitzel indicates that creative methods had to be considered to attract new drivers to replace the older retiring drivers. Now, the same consideration has to be given to developing in-cab instructors.
“As the industry is getting older and older professional drivers, we have to develop our own,” he says. “Yes, we can recruit from other companies. But fundamentally we have to start building that professional driver. But in order to do that professionally, and effectively, we need that in-cab instructor.”
Bison had five in-cab instructors six months ago, and currently has 13, but Pitzel says the company needs 50 to keep up with demand. Bison is in the midst of promoting its own in-cab instructor program internally to candidates that meet the criteria for the job. The fleet also had an open house in each of its terminals, to raise awareness about the program amongst its drivers.
“We’ve actually started a directed marketing campaign to our fleets of low-risk drivers that meet the criteria to become an in-cab instructor,” says Pitzel. “We’re beginning next week to phone each and every one of them to talk to them about the program.”
The in-cab instructor program pays the instructor the regular per kilometre rate, plus $75 a day. The student gets a three-month flat salary, so income isn’t a concern and learning how to drive in a professional manner is the main focus. Potentially, the student driver does most of the driving, with the in-cab instructor observing on long-haul routes that offer big city traffic and at the Canada/US border crossings.
“They will go all over North America, but we try to keep them closer,” says Pitzel. “Our objective is to teach them about the industry and driving, also get them to feel comfortable, especially with crossing the border.”
Pitzel says those long-haul routes would typically run from Winnipeg to Chicago and then on to Toronto and back the same way, which exposes the new driver to four border crossings and two large cities with unique urban congestion. The other route is via the Rockies to Banff and Lake Louise, a challenging exercise for a new driver. “That’s a mandatory requirement,” adds Pitzel.
Despite the urgency for in-cab instructors, Bison is picky about its selection of instructors, and the candidacy for this position is based on a set of criteria, according to Pitzel. The selected candidate must first undertake an interview process, and if accepted, the driver is directed towards a professional program for driver coaches. The future in-cab instructor also takes part in Bison’s own coaching/mentoring program, which includes diversity training.
“Once they complete that, they become in-cab instructors,” says Pitzel, who indicates that the training is supportive, with weekly evaluation sessions between the new driver fleet coordinator, the instructor, and the trainee. In these sessions the development team discusses positive and negative situations that came up, and considers the learning objective for the following week.
One of Bison’s most senior incab instructors has been coaching for three years, and appears to instill a great deal of confidence in his trainee.
Dave Cousins sits in the passenger’s seat as observer on long hauls, except for when he’s demonstrating certain driving techniques, according to Pitzel. He recently told his boss that he hasn’t actually driven the training truck since February.
“He’s there to sit in the passenger seat and evaluate, and provide that mentorship and coaching in real-time, as the events occur,” says Pitzel.
The first student to graduate from the MPI/Bison entry-level professional driver raining program was in June, and Pitzel expects the demand to grow. However, without sufficient incab instructors, the director of safety and driver development has his concerns.
“If we don’t do something today, in the next year, to get in-cab instructors, we’re going to pay dearly for it in five years,” Pitzel says.