Looking beyond skills-based training

by Al Goodhall

Are we hung up on skills-based training in the trucking sector?

I think we are, and that is the root problem when it comes to hiring and retaining drivers. You see, it’s great to learn a new skill. It’s exciting, and because the learning curve is steep over the course of the first year, we remain keen about our new profession.

The thing is that once we accrue that first few thousand hours of experience and what is new becomes rote-like, our mind turns away from its focus on developing skills to the mundane routine of our daily grind. It is at this point that we lose the bulk of our new drivers.

The longhaul truck driver faces a unique set of challenges in today’s connected world. Drivers are asked to take on a role they must remain mentally focused on, a single task for hours on end without deviation.

At the same time, the skills the industry places so much focus on developing are becoming increasingly redundant with the expansion of technology through ‘driver assist’ systems and automated powertrains. In fact, we actively market the concept of anyone being able to drive a truck because of advanced automated systems.

This puts a new focus on the mental challenges the longhaul driver faces. Much of the joy we derive from our work as drivers is at risk. The term ‘steering wheel holder’ is taking on a whole new meaning in our industry.

The point I am striving to get across here is a subtle one, which is difficult to understand if you have never actually done the job of longhaul driving for any length of time.

It is incredibly important to hold on to your independence and remain empowered over how you use your time, apply your skills and experience, and interact with the equipment you operate. These core factors of job satisfaction are being undermined by the same technologies that are imposed on us under the auspices of making our lives as drivers easier.

I am not against the adoption of new systems, practices, or technologies that are intended to improve safety and performance. But there is an overarching feeling out here on the road that freedom and independence – the hallmark values that define what it is to be a longhaul trucker – are on the chopping block and that will lead to this great profession becoming yet another McJob of the 21st century.

So, why do I think a focus on skills-based training is a big part of the problem? It’s because we have been developing a black and white rules-based approach to safety through enforcement that is static in its nature, while the responsibilities of a driver are dynamic and constantly in flux.

We spend far too little time on the nuanced application of skills in a constantly changing work environment, and how we can interact with new technologies and systems to solve the problems we face rather than an approach that sees us passively monitoring technology as it does the job for us.

We are not encouraging innovation in the cab. In fact, we have already developed a mindset that has elevated the new automated truck as a piece of equipment that is beyond the understanding of the average driver.

How is this attractive in any way as a career option? Have we inadvertently converted the responsibilities of a professional trucker to that of a steering wheel holder? Are we trying to attract people to a career that anyone can now do after receiving 105 hours of skills training, with very little to no attention being paid to the mental challenges a driver faces on a daily basis?

There is a deeply human side to truck driving that we are putting aside as we struggle with the rapid transition to new technologies. It’s that transition where our struggle resides, not in learning the physical skills of the job.

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