Career path or roadblock? Seeing a future could make the difference

by Katy de Vries

TRURO, N.S. – When drivers look at their future do they see a career path or a roadblock? The answer could make the difference between a long-term employee and yet another driver deciding to hang up his keys.

While “the driver shortage” grabs all the media attention, the heart of the problem lies with the kind of career frustrations experienced truckers encounter along the way, according to Roy Craigen, general manager of Transcom in Edmonton, Alta. and chairman of the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council (CTHRC).

“They were attracted to the business because of the freedom, the adventure, the equipment. But by the time they are 35 years old, the shine has worn off the industry. They now have 15 years of experience and are at the top of their game, but instead of feeling that way they look over the horizon and see that they have more hassles, border congestion and static pay ahead of themselves. They realize they still have 30 years of this and they feel stuck,” Craigen said.

What was just an irritant in their 20s has grown into a problem by their 30s, said Craigen. So much so that the job itself seems a roadblock to paying bills, sending kids to school and providing a life for their families. And far too often this leads to the driver leaving the industry.

But Craigen believes the problem can be rectified, and that a career path in trucking is possible for the men and women behind the wheel. In fact, he points out, many of the industry’s company owners, executives and managers began their careers as drivers.

“We didn’t have it packaged as a product in earlier years and really what we are doing now is saying let’s use these best-case examples to demonstrate how a career path is achievable within a company and promote it as an asset,” Craigen said.

It’s all about having options.

“If a career path can provide an option for you, even though many wouldn’t take that option, just knowing it is there would satisfy a lot of drivers today,” he explained.

Paul Murphy, a shorthaul dispatcher for Big Freight Systems who began his career as a driver, is a good example of a former driver who saw a future for himself in the industry.

“Every company will have its own policies and procedures and once you get to know them in one role it is easier and more comfortable to move within that company because you know how it operates. So for a driver, knowing that he could move around within the company will help with job satisfaction and even driver retention,” Murphy said.

He knew what he wanted early on – and that was to move into a different role while still staying with Big Freight Systems.

“I was happy as a driver but I always had aspirations to take on another role. It was more a way to get to where I wanted to go rather than the final destination itself,” said Murphy, who recently won the 2004 Dispatcher of the Year Award at the Canadian Recruitment and Retention Conference held in Toronto, Ont.

Driving for seven years prior to becoming a dispatcher almost four years ago has helped him deal with drivers’ concerns and better understand the intricacies of the operation, he said.

“I definitely feel that my driving experience has helped me understand not only the physical elements of the job, like how to secure a load properly, but the mental side of it too, like being away from home for days on end. That stuff you can’t sit in a classroom and learn from an instructor because the instructor that could actually teach that to you is out on the road doing it for himself.”

In fact, ex-drivers are cropping up in all areas of some trucking companies.

“We have seven ex-drivers in our linehaul operations, two ex-drivers in logistics, one ex-driver in our sales department, five ex-drivers hold senior management positions and two ex-drivers manage our outside warehousing business,” said Ray Haight, president and COO of MacKinnon Transport.

The CTHRC sees a lot of mobility between workers in various positions, said Linda Gauthier, CTHRC managing director, and carriers keep an eye on the effective and productive people and make offers to them when they have openings.

The opportunities are there for drivers to build a career plan that includes beginning as a driver and moving their way through different roles within the company, according to Kelly Henderson, executive director of the Trucking Human Resource Sector Council based in Truro, N.S.

“We see shortages at all levels of the company but driver shortage is our key area of concern. However, there is a link between the two because we do see movement of personnel from behind the wheel to behind the desk,” Henderson said.

Those that come into trucking management positions through a sound operational background seem to enjoy higher success than those who come into the management positions through a strictly academic background, said Craigen. They are simply more believable in the eyes of the driver group, he said.

And on-the-job learning doesn’t have to end.

Murphy is complementing his practical experience with an academic education. He is working on a logistics certificate from the University of Manitoba as well as his CITT certification, which should be finished by late spring. But he isn’t going to stop there, he said.

“I think it’s so important to keep up with learning about our industry because if you don’t learn the stuff, someone else is going to do it first and that is really our only competitive edge – to do it first. All of a company’s services can be so closely mirrored by another trucking company so you have to set your self apart and keep ahead of the pack and I think one way of doing that is by educating yourself.”

Murphy recommends starting in the industry as a driver and if desired moving around from there.

“It worked for me and so I would suggest going out and getting in the truck and learning some of the text book stuff while you’re there because by combining practical and academic learning, it sets you up to come out ahead,” he said.

Many of today’s company owners and partners are proof that having driving experience under their belt has helped them operate their companies today. However, this is provided they realize that times are changing and they have to keep up with new technologies and new approaches to doing business, said Gauthier.

Craigen agrees there is a place for mobile learning.

“We have to repackage the delivery of education in order to accommodate lifestyle,” he said.

The trucking industry just isn’t going to see drivers taking five years off to go to school because they have families to look after and want to make a living. And the days of a driver going to work for a company for 40 years are over too, Craigen said.

“The work expectancy for a driver in a company now is under five years, so if by providing education while driving will get someone to give six to 10 years to a company then they would be a strong contributor to the industry and a good ambassador,” he said.

The army has used post secondary education incentives to attract people for years, so the trucking industry can be just as creative and use this to give drivers an option, added Craigen.

But for that to happen, schools, government and industry have to work together, he warns.

Whether it is through a career path program, an apprenticeship program or post-secondary institution course work, the industry needs to tear down the barriers to entry for trucking.

Providing options for drivers through these avenues could help to do that.

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