Leading the way

by Derek Clouthier

CLARESHOLM, Alta. – Retaining long-haul truck drivers is not the easiest goal to achieve, which is why Watt and Stewart Commodities is doing everything it can to get new, quality drivers through its door and on the road.

With locations in Claresholm, Alta., Lexington, S.C. and San Angelo, Texas and around 125 trucks in total, the company has employed a mentorship program in the past, but as co-owner John Stewart told Truck West, with the current driver shortage starting to come to fruition, they are giving it another shot.

“I’m trying to do it, and why we’re doing it is because of a lot of things,” Stewart said, pointing to the age of today’s truck drivers, the Baby Boomers nearing retirement and the overall demographics of drivers as examples. “It is a real problem. There are people who want to get into the industry and (wonder) how they can do it.”

Stewart said he used to take part in the Mountain Transport Institute’s ‘Earning Your Wheels’ program, which he said was a worthwhile endeavor until it became defunct, but added that it was also costly for his company to utilize, and in the end, resulted in no long-haul drivers staying with Watt and Stewart.

“It wasn’t exactly what they were looking for,” Stewart said. “And I spent a lot of money. It was a costlier program and I spent a lot of time, energy and money, and in three years the result was none of them were still here.If nothing else, maybe you’ve made a driver that someone else can use.”

Stewart said he’s not sure if he’d call the mentorship effort they have been using recently a ‘program’ per se, but they are at least taking a crack at it once again to bring in new drivers and get them trained.

The first step is the interview, which is when Stewart said he looks to see if the applicant’s goals are in line and match what Watt and Stewart is doing as a company.

“If they want to do short haul and don’t ever want to leave the province, then the interview is over,” Stewart said. “If they want to do long haul or regional work, then yes, we can get over that hurdle, and then we find out a little bit about them.”

The company’s mentorship program begins with some short-haul runs, normally within around a 100-km radius of the Claresholm location for one to two months. Prospective drivers then work with other drivers packing loads in the yard for around the same amount of time before they are put on the road to start doing some long-haul trips down to South Carolina.

“It’s not really a tried-and-true system,” Stewart said, adding that a young driver was just put through this regiment not long ago. “It’s worked once and I’ve got a second young guy here who comes from a trucking background…he loves trucks, and I said okay.”

Stewart said one of the problems with mentoring new drivers is that once they complete his program and end up going elsewhere, they are only trained to haul the specific products Watt and Stewart move, and whatever company they transition to would then have to provide training if they haul dissimilar freight.

“I can teach them flatbed work, I can teach them oversized hauling and I can teach them how to drive, which they could then dovetail to another company and learn whatever skill they need,” Stewart said.

Finding Canadian drivers has also long been an issue for Watt and Stewart.

“We’ve tried, like everybody else, millions of ways to keep drivers and to find drivers,” he said. “I’m struggling right now to hire Canadian drivers because they either can’t or don’t want to cross the border or don’t want to do long-haul.”

Stewart said at one point, his company was made up of about 60% immigrant drivers from all over Europe, but with regulatory changes making it more difficult to bring people in from overseas, that number has dropped.

“The whole program was working really well about six to seven years ago…it was logical, it made sense and it didn’t have all this bureaucracy,” Stewart said of the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

The website www.britishexpats.com even has a posting from January 2013 of Watt and Stewart looking for 20 new employees to begin work immediately.

Right now, Watt and Stewart is in need of seven new drivers, and Stewart is in the process of applying for another foreign worker permit, as he said he knows people in Europe who would gladly come work for his company.

But ‘need’ can change quickly in the trucking industry.

“I was full three weeks ago, but that’s what this industry does to you,” said Stewart. “(Drivers) are very transient. Recruiting, retention, pay scales…it all has to work. And you can do all the things you think are right and they can still walk away.”

He added that the government often looks at the pool of potential drivers too simplistically, believing that someone with a Class 1 licence can just get behind the wheel of a truck.

“Well, I say, first are they trained and are they even in the industry?” Stewart questioned. “In our office alone, we have five or six people with a Class 1 (licence) but they don’t actively work as a truck driver every day.”

But Watt and Stewart are ‘spreading their wings’ in the company’s efforts to bring in new talent.

So far, Stewart said he has mostly just got information out about his company’s mentorship program by word of mouth, and has not advertised in an effort to avoid receiving too many applications all at one time, particularly from drivers with no experience at all.

The company’s objective with the mentorship program is to train about three or four new drivers per year.

“The whole goal is to get them out on the road and become long haul drivers,” Stewart said, “and to retain them as long haul drivers, but that’s easier said than done.”

The lifestyle of long-haul truck driver is unique, and there are a myriad of things that can happen to a person that can change how they perceive the job, including marriage, health issues and unforeseen family matters.

“People are people first,” said Stewart, “and truck drivers second.”

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