CASTLEGAR, B.C. - A British Columbia truck driving school operator is calling on governments to create a new, higher end EI training funding program so potential truck drivers can learn the skills the...
CASTLEGAR, B.C. –A British Columbia truck driving school operator is calling on governments to create a new, higher end EI training funding program so potential truck drivers can learn the skills they need without going bankrupt in the process.
Andy Roberts of Castlegar, B.C.-based Mountain Transport Institute, claims that tuition funding caps introduced by the provincial government are shortchanging people who want to pursue careers such as trucking, whose training costs can go far above and beyond what’s currently available from the province.
The funding caps, he explains, came about after a changeover from federal to provincial control over the funds.
“Traditionally,” Roberts says, “the money for retraining people on EI came from the federal government and was administered federally.”
That changed last year, however, when Victoria signed an agreement with Ottawa to take over responsibility for those funds.
Now, explains Roberts, that money is transferred to the provincial government once a year, and the province can do what it pleases with it.
The difference is that, when Ottawa was in charge, the province could go back to the federal well if it ran out of money before the fiscal year was over -citing such issues as higher demand for training. The new arrangement sees Ottawa transfer a fixed amount per year and, while “they don’t have to give it back,” Roberts says, “you don’t get any more, either.”
Roberts says a $4,000 tuition cap was introduced in response to a number of regions in the province spending their entire training budgets long before the end of the fiscal year, leaving them with more year than they had money.
And while a $4,000 cap might not be a big deal for many training courses, it effectively throws a monkey wrench into Roberts’ business and others like it.
“If you’re taking college-based or classroom-based courses,” Roberts says, “you can put 20 people into a classroom with a projector or a bunch of computers, so that $4,000 will actually buy you quite a bit of training.”
He says the challenge in training for careers such as a professional driver, however, “is that the classroom costs more like $125,000 to purchase, plus the trailer that goes with it, so you’re looking at a capital cost of $150,000 for a classroom that’ll house one student and one instructor for however many hours as the case may be.”
Mountain Transport Institute charges just shy of $14,000 for the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council’s Earning Your Wheels program, including tuition, textbooks and the other related fees.
Four grand in this case amounts to little more than a nice down payment.
Roberts acknowledges that there are institutes offering programs for less than $4,000, but accuses most of them of being targeted at teaching people how to pass the road test, not how to be employable, safe, professional drivers.
Some of these schools, Roberts claims, literally teach students the road test route “and they won’t necessarily teach you how to turn a corner, but how to turn a particular corner that’s on the road test,” he says.
“So if you can get a job driving the road test route you’re good to go. But we want to ensure the highways are safer tomorrow than they are today by turning out people who are employable. It’s better for the student and for the carrier -and ultimately for the travelling public.”
Not only that, Roberts says, but potential students who don’t know much about the trucking industry going in can also be sold a bill of goods about their job potential afterward.
“What they don’t tell them is that simply getting your licence isn’t going to get you a job; it’s one of many qualifications you need to be employable. There’s mountain driving, sliding a fifth wheel, chaining up, driving in the dark, dealing with the paperwork, dealing with customers, that type of thing.”
Roberts acknowledges that some of Mountain Transport Institute’s students are self-funded and some use student lines of credit and other mechanisms but, he says, thanks to the tuition cap, some people who may want to pursue a career in trucking are being shut out.
One solution, he says, is a new mechanism by which people are accountable for investing in their own retraining.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to write somebody a $14,000 cheque, because that almost becomes a bit like a paid vacation,” he says. Instead, he’d like to see a new type of student loan that allows students to borrow a larger sum and requires them to pay it back afterward “so that money is there for the next person to use the next year.”
Such a system, he says, not only includes accountability -in that the money must be paid back -but the larger amount also encourages people to take a long, hard look to see if truck driving is really the career they want.
“They’re much more engaged when they come to do the training,” he says, “because they need to be prepared to pay back that extra $10,000 or whatever. But right now there’s no mechanism for that.”
Roberts has been pushing the concept with his local MLA and Member of Parliament, but to no avail so far.
“I’m doing my very best to make a case for it,” he says. “I won’t say it’s falling on deaf ears but it’s not necessarily going to happen sooner rather than later. Hopefully it does.”
He’s also been in touch with the Ministry of Housing and Social Development several times and, though they’re sympathetic to the situation, he says, he’s seen no movement on revisiting the tuition cap.
The current business climate has kept enrollment in his school low, Roberts says, a situation that has led to him laying off three full-time staff members, with a fourth now driving trucks instead of teaching how to drive them. And while the driver shortage many have envisioned has yet to happen, Roberts thinks the time for such a two-tiered student loan program is here anyway.
“Recruitment ads are starting slowly to reappear,” he says, “and if the estimates are correct we’re going to see some growth this year, which means we’re going to see carriers getting busier and needing drivers.”
The need will be even more pressing going forward, since experienced drivers have been retiring from the industry but haven’t necessarily been replaced.
“As things pick up and get busy again,” Roberts says, “the driver shortage is going to return and it’s going to be bigger than it was before.”
That means, he says, the lack of proper funding choices for students is going to handicap carriers from getting good quality entry-level people, er, down the road.
One possible ray of sunshine is the B.C. Professional (Truck) Driver Training Program Pilot Project (see next page) on which the BCTA and the government are working. Roberts thinks it may eventually offer a similar program to what he envisions, and he’s planning to get involved if he can.
“We don’t have a lot of information on it right now,” he says, “but it appears it’s going to turn out a very competent entry-level driver, so I’m excited about that.”
What isn’t known right now is whether, if the project gets through the pilot phase and is adopted as a permanent program eventually, there will be adequate training money attached to it.
“Once we see that, we’ll know what opportunities that opens up,” Roberts says.
In the meantime, Roberts says it’s short-sighted on the part of the government to remove access to such training without providing a viable option for people to improve their skill sets and employability.
“The hidden impact of this decision (to cap tuition) will become apparent as the economy begins to improve,” he says.
“And the shortage of professional drivers restricts opportunities for B.C. trucking companies to provide their clients with superior service as well as to seize new opportunities for growth.”
‘As things pick up and get busy again, the driver shortage is going to return and it’s going to be bigger than it was before.’