OAK BLUFF, Man. – “In my mind there is only one solution to moving trucking away from a ‘last resort’ career choice. As an industry, we need to make it difficult to become a driver.”
Ryan Mitchell, president of Manitoba trucking company Wildwood Transport, is not buying the notion that a driver shortage is having a negative impact on the industry. Instead, he believes there are other factors contributing to why more people are not getting behind the wheel.
“I think as an industry we have an image problem and a lack of specialized training to develop expertise within the many niches of trucking,” Mitchell said. “Every year there’s a certain amount of product that needs to move, and despite this apparent driver shortage, somehow it gets moved.”
Mitchell and his brother Kevin have been running Wildwood Transport since they purchased the company from their father in 2013. Launched in 1989 as a compliment to their father’s wholesale lumber business, which started seven years earlier, Wildwood began focusing exclusively on trucking in 1999, leaving the forestry business behind altogether.
Ryan said his father was struggling to get the services he needed for his lumber business, and began hauling his own freight out of necessity.
“Our business has grown from a few trucks hauling lumber, to a sophisticated open deck operation with an expertise in hauling specialized heavy equipment for the farming, construction and mining industries,” Ryan explained. “Although the business will always change as it grows and matures, we have always been committed to building a team of people that want to execute their work at a level that is of the highest quality possible.”
As for the ‘driver shortage,’ Ryan said he feels that ‘basic economic forces will always ensure that there is never any shortage of drivers available to move freight, and questions that if there really was a need for more drivers, then why have wages not increased to lure them in?
“I’m not talking about rate per mile,” he said, “I’m talking about the actual dollars you put in your pocket on an annual basis. More and more experienced drivers are supposedly leaving the industry each year, so why have wages not gone up?”
Ryan said the industry shoots itself in the foot by not allowing the shortage to reduce capacity and drive up wages, and instead, makes it as easy as possible for people to get their licence and become truck drivers.
“This fills the gap in the labor pool and ensures that there is no shortage and there is no wage increase,” Ryan said. “Unfortunately, what it also does is cause an image problem for the industry, because by making it overly easy to get into this career, we end up with people who choose our industry as a last resort.”
Ryan said those who are not willing to put in the time, effort and money toward another vocation, such as plumbing, electrician, mechanic or construction worker, often find themselves choosing trucking as a career.
“Hop in a truck, pass a basic road test and you’ve got your Class 1 licence…that’s all it takes,” Ryan said. “People think that this is a good solution to our ‘driver shortage,’ but it completely damages our ability as an industry to attract and retain highly sought after, top quality professionals for one reason only – it doesn’t pay enough money!”
Clearly passionate about the industry and the drivers who make up such a significant portion of the transportation sector – so much so that he apologized for speaking at such length about his feelings around the ‘driver shortage’ – Ryan said it is not uncommon for Wildwood to turn away between 40 and 50 applications in a week from those with Class 1 licences.
“There is certainly not a shortage of people with Class 1 licences,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of skilled, trained people, with the experience that will allow them to succeed in our specialized niche.”
During the past few years, Wildwood has had its ups and downs.
Ryan said it has been a challenging time for the open deck industry in Canada due to the slowdown in the commodities sectors and the impact on cross-border shipping.
“I don’t believe there is ever any easy formula that allows you to magically emerge from a downturn unscathed,” Ryan said. “It takes a lot of hard work, with a focus on keeping your core drivers and owner-operators busy. We certainly are not looking to grow our driver base if it would impact the success of our existing people.”
Part of Wildwood’s success has come from the fact that Ryan and Kevin have successfully implemented a proper business strategy to move the company forward.
“We’re just in the early stages of communicating and implementing this plan,” Ryan said, “but it’s nice to have some clarity, and be able to make decisions as a group with a consistent understanding of our core principles, and long-term objectives.”
Ryan is also proud of his staff, particularly how many of them give their time to support various initiatives in the community of Oak Bluff, Man., including one of the company’s owner-operators, Gary Peltier, who puts on a trail and motorcycle ride for the Make-A-Wish Foundation every year, bringing in thousands of dollars to help a child in need.
Wildwood also sends a group to the Winnipeg Ronald McDonald house once or twice a year to cook a meal for those staying at the facility.
“I find that people in the trucking industry are so hard working and so generous with their time, always willing to help someone out,” said Ryan, “which is pretty amazing since it’s a job where you’re already limited in the amount of time you’re able to spend at home with your own family.”
Ryan and Kevin have also found themselves giving up some of their own time when it comes to company barbecues, something the pair seems to have brought on themselves.
“Kevin and I love to cook, and are particularly proud of our homemade burgers, so a few years ago, we decide to hand-make some burgers for a staff barbecue,” Ryan said. “I think there would be a revolt if we decided to purchase store-bought burgers now, so we’re usually up late the night before our barbecues making (more than) 100 burger patties.”
Looking to the future, Ryan hopes things for Wildwood look pretty much the same as they do now, as they specialize in open deck transport and have a very specific geographical focus. They intend to continue investing significantly in technology, remaining close with their customers and maintain a team of ‘unmatched technical experts in hauling open deck cargo.’
“It’s important to understand the fact that we’re not in an industry that invents new social media platforms or designs fancy electric cars,” Ryan said. “We are in the business of understanding what our customer wants and delivering that exact experience with accuracy and consistency.”
But Ryan knows it’s not easy to maintain the level of staff he hopes to have at Wildwood.
“It becomes more difficult every year to keep our quality level high, as there are less and less skilled operators who want to work the way you need to work in a specialized deck operation,” he said. “I am proud to say that we continue to be very selective on who we hire. We simply refuse to perpetuate the (driver shortage) problem. I just think ‘driver shortage’ has become this blanket term that’s easy to put on a news headline, but without digging deeper, I think it is a concept that is highly misunderstood.”