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Driver leasing services: The good, the bad and the mediocre

TORONTO, Ont. - Driver services can be great places to work if you play your cards smart. But getting involved with a bad one can be as draining as a dysfunctional relationship with a lover or spouse.

TORONTO, Ont. – Driver services can be great places to work if you play your cards smart. But getting involved with a bad one can be as draining as a dysfunctional relationship with a lover or spouse.

I used a couple of agencies while I attended York University in the early ’90s. My job at Bill Thompson Transport in St. Thomas, Ont. ended with a downturn in the auto industry so I applied to York University rather than collect pogey.

During school, I’d make the odd run to Montreal or Ottawa for Kmart, or bang cans on weekends for Canadian Tire. After graduation I had a hefty student loan and support payments so I went full-time with an agency – probably a mistake.

For one thing the job was grueling: delivering to department stores and daily lifting 35,000 lbs off the floor manually onto rollers. The pay wasn’t great but the people I worked with were okay and there were some benefits.

But I found out that the transport manager at the distribution centre was regularly screwing me out of overtime by putting me on the highway when I was getting too many hours, and then shuttling me back to city so he’d only have to pay a minimum of the higher mileage rate.

Ironically this guy has risen to the top of the pack at a large Canadian retailer and now handles hundreds of agency drivers.

As for the driver service, they’re still around handling some big accounts, but I’ve heard at least one description of them as “unprofessional.” My relationship ended when they forgot to submit my application for a 15 year safe driver award, and they announced arbitrarily that they had enrolled all the drivers in a random drug screening pool, despite the fact that none of us ran across the border.

The next day I got a job hauling B-trains for Eaton’s to Montreal, and vowed that I would never get involved with a sub-par employer again. Since that time I’ve only targeted the best-paying driving jobs and never had any trouble landing them.

But there are many good things that can be said about driver services. On the whole they pay a little less than private fleets or carriers, but not always. Some specialized accounts, (ie., liquid gas haulers) compensate drivers exceptionally well.

George Iacono is vice-president Global Driver Services and overseas about 500 drivers. Unlike some other personnel agencies, Global deals with only truck drivers and nothing else.

“It’s just easier for us to find them work,” he says. “If they’re not happy with one place they can find something else.”

Iacono says that most of his drivers have dedicated assignments, but some drivers prefer to work off the spare board which, in Global’s case, includes city work as well as Canada and US highway routes.

“One advantage is that we’re one-stop shopping. If the guy’s flexible he can try out different stuff,” he says. “It’s also a good reason for somebody new to the industry to take the driver service route.”

Paul Rioux is currently on the open board for Pivotal Action Force of Mississauga, Ont. He called me while he was delivering garage doors in Port Hope, Ont.

“I had a run to Calgary (from Toronto) for Nortel. It was really good money and I loved the work,” he says. “But that ended because Nortel restructured. I like working for a driver service because there’s always some work. Some weeks are a little dry, but very few.”

Rioux mentions an incident when a client’s truck caught fire while he was sleeping in the bunk. A few weeks later the tractor came back from the repair shop and the customer expected him to drive it.

“I told them that if they want me to get back in that truck they better find another driver,” he says. “You probably wouldn’t be able to do that if you were a company employee.”

Another friend, Rob Sutherland, drives linehaul for PCL in Toronto five days a week, but supplements his income by working weekends for In Transit, whom he describes as “very professional.”

“They back up their ethics and philosophy with paperwork that tells you exactly what’s expected by each customer,” he says.

Sutherland gets all the hours he wants from In Transit and even trains drivers for them.

“Just last week I had a chap with me from Meyers. I showed him the Canadian Tire operation in Brampton, as well as how the CN and CP yards work.”

But for Rob Smith of Mississauga, Ont., working for a driver service is all about time off.

“Time off is more important to me than money. So I tell them I am willing to work for different customers in different locations and in return I might work steady for six months and then I will take a month off,” he says. “Or possibly work on an even more specific schedule – work a month and take two weeks off.”

Key to working for a driver service is finding a good one, of course. But how do you separate the cream from the whey?

“I will usually judge a driver service on my initial impressions,” says Smith. “Is the office bright and clean and the staff behind the desk friendly? Then I ask questions about the volume of work available. Do they have a variety of customers or only two or three big accounts?”

Smith says most agencies offer little if any training, but good ones like the Alliance Group have training programs available for different work assignments.

“You can tell this when you look at their operation. And in four years there I never missed a check or was shortchanged in any way,” he says.

“It can be tough to get any work with a driver service in January, February and March,” adds Smith. “But yes, I would certainly use them again. I think for most drivers they are a stepping stone to full time employment with a decent company.”

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