Why mentor programs aren’t the answer

by Bill Cameron

We have a problem in this industry. Okay, we have a lot of them, but a new one just dawned on me, and I think it’ll be a big one.

As I’ve written in the past, insurance companies won’t allow small carriers to hire newly licensed drivers. I feel this accomplishes the opposite of the intended purpose, but they don’t much care what we small operators think, apparently. 

As such, new drivers must start their career with a large carrier. To again quote myself, we are all such creatures of habit that we tend to stay with whatever sector first gets our feet wet. 

This attitude will deprive too many future professionals of what I consider to be the advantages of working for a small fleet: often higher pay, more home time without sacrificing miles travelled, a more personal employee/employer relationship, and, I think in many cases, better training. 

I’m often reminded of a common disadvantage, that we don’t often offer new trucks. Is this really an advantage anymore?  

I know of one Ontario fleet that has recently had three trucks and drivers parked on the West Coast for a week with engine failures.

To properly train new drivers, a lot of large fleets are setting up mentor programs. While appearing to be a proactive step, I’m afraid that in a lot of cases, this could be counterproductive.

Years ago, I was road tested for a potential job by the company’s senior driver, a man with a whopping seven years of experience. He had a very high opinion of his own abilities, giving the impression that anything less than perfection would be unsatisfactory. His new truck had a driver monitor system, the dash-mounted reader of which I was able to read. It listed off his multiple hard brake incidents, and excess hours-of-service violations for the previous ten days. Perfect professional, huh?

In a truck stop lobby lately, a young driver thinking of leaving the first company that had hired him, was asking an obviously older driver for advice. The youngster had never been taught how to fill out a logbook, and wondered how popular e-logs were. The older driver, puffing out his chest and hooking a thumb in his oversize belt buckle, informed Junior that e-logs should be the first question when job hunting, because if a company didn’t use them, they obviously “Expect you to break the law, and you shouldn’t even consider working for them.” I drew in my breath to launch into this pompous ass, then thought better of it and left.

Twenty years ago, I had an agency temp job. The carrier’s driver-trainer gave me a ride to pick up a truck once. By the time we made it to the road, I figured if I was interviewing this guy, we wouldn’t have gone further.

A few years ago, we were watching some of our drivers compete in the local driving competition. Another competitor was a driving school instructor. He almost immediately botched the course, spinning the tires and dumping the clutch, before applying the maxi’s while still moving, leaping from the cab to the ground, offering the judges a single finger salute as he stomped off the course, cursing.

Several times, I’ve interviewed drivers who show up with an impressive resume, usually including company-sponsored training at a large carrier. The road test often has me wondering if I should drive the truck back to the yard myself, at the same time as I debate the polite method to tell the applicant that despite several years of experience, by my standards, they are completely unemployable, either because of lack of driving ability or they have no clue what to inspect during a pre-trip.

I’ve given this long list of examples so that you already know my closing argument; it’s such obvious common sense. 

What if your mentor is themselves lacking in skills or judgment, or is nothing more than a talking head for the company? What will their trainees turn out like? Even worse, fast-forward 20 years, when this crop of trainee is the trainer. Yikes!

My training happened at a 20- to 30-truck construction company, where, surrounded by the best heavy haulers alive, I drove 15- to 25-year-old, heavily loaded trucks on marginal roads. A truck coming home not under its own power wasn’t an option. My mentors would explain anything I didn’t know, remind me if needed, then issue a verbal dressing down if I screwed up. 

This wasn’t formal company policy, just the way professionals conducted themselves. They hadn’t even been told to guide me; it was just standard procedure. That training extended to driving two-stick transmissions, and although not legal now, I can adjust, or replace, my own brakes, and adjust the fifth wheel. 

It also left me with no patience towards those who can’t progressive shift, or don’t know what their gauges mean. I could literally throttle those who come in off the highway and immediately turn off the ignition, or start the truck cold without checking fluid levels. I wouldn’t trade this training for any other. Unfortunately, this option is often no longer available.

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  • Providing mentoring to new drivers needs to be done by skilled Professional Drivers who have been evaluated by the companies safety department and provided with upgrade training as required. Training for a mentor should also include how to deal with adult learners and the different learning styles that are out there. A mentor should be a driver that the company whats to clone and has a positive attitude about his employer and our industry. A properly trained and equipped mentor is an invaluable asset to any trucking company but simply giving the tittle to your senior driver with out any guidelines, support or evaluation is a recipe for disaster. We are having enough trouble attracting new entrants to our industry everyone needs to support their development so they can be successful!