SURREY, B.C. — The face of the Canadian truck driver has been changing in recent years, at least in many areas outside of B.C.’s Lower Mainland in Canada’s southwest.
With 60% of the province’s population, the Lower Mainland has been experiencing an influx of South Asian workers for a long time, many of them flocking to the transportation industry.
For most carriers in the region, there has been no “changing face” in trucking at all, and has rather been the norm for as long as many in the area can remember.
“I haven’t actually seen the changing face other than that there’s an older population of drivers out there who are retiring and with no folks from Canada wanting to (drive),” said David Payne, president of Harbour Link, a Delta, B.C., carrier with a fleet of 103 and 90% South Asian drivers. “Basically, we’re having to fill these jobs with folks who immigrate to Canada. This has been ongoing for 25 years…at least in British Columbia.”
Payne said it’s tough finding quality drivers in 2018, a problem that is not unique to Canada, but also in the U.S., where drivers are retiring and no one is coming in to fill vacant positions.
“Trucking has got a stigma attached to it,” Payne said. “If I’m in high school, my aspiration is not to be a truck driver. I want to do post-secondary, college, university, and get a fancy job at Google. So we’re not replenishing.”
Payne said in the Lower Mainland, those from the South Asian community predominantly look for driving positions with trucking companies, but Harbour Link does employ some in other positions.
Daman Grewal and Harpreet Kalsi own Centurion Trucking, a for-hire carrier out of Surrey, B.C., that specializes in hauling temperature-controlled shipments throughout Canada and the U.S.
Grewal, who comes from the South Asian community, has been in the industry for more than 20 years, and during his time with Centurion, the company has experienced rapid expansion, being among the fastest growing companies in the country.
Despite Grewal’s success – Canadian Business and Maclean’s magazine ranked Centurion number 131 on its annual Growth 500 this year, making it first overall in the transportation and logistics category – he did not always see trucking as his calling.
Initially lured by a friend’s father, who brought him in to do some office work for his trucking company, Grewal admitted he tried to leave the industry several times.
“Somehow, someone would pull me back in and I would be back to helping grow their trucking companies,” said Grewal. “There came a point where I started enjoying what I was doing and started finding the jobs rewarding.”
One facet of the industry that stood out to Grewal was the impact he had on driver income.
“It was a place where drivers could be treated equally and be compensated equally as well,” he said. “Whether you were born and raised in Canada or you were a new immigrant, the trucking industry didn’t seem to discriminate, but rather provided opportunity to those who were willing to work hard.”
It’s for this reason Grewal believes so many from the South Asian community have found themselves in the trucking industry.
“It gave many of the South Asians an opportunity to earn a good living,” he said, “and to be able to provide for their families.”
Grewal was born and raised in Surrey, and said he has seen firsthand some of the racism that was directed toward the South Asian community during his upbringing.
“People would call us names and throw eggs, while telling us to go back to our home countries,” said Grewal. “I used to hear the stories of the South Asian workers only being able to get the lower level jobs in the industries that would employ them.”
It was through this hardship, however, that many South Asian workers would show their resilience and find success.
Behind the wheel of his company trucks, Grewal has seen several of the uplifting stories achieved by South Asian drivers.
“Using the monies that were earned through trucking, many South Asian drivers were able to make investments in properties, houses, different businesses, and were also able to open up their own trucking companies,” he said. “They were able to raise their families, put their kids through schooling, and afford many of the luxuries Canada has to offer.”
Grewal said many new South Asians coming to Canada see the open door the trucking industry offers as a career choice. With several newcomers facing years of educational upgrading to gain equivalencies in their schooling from their home country, trucking has been a way to start earning money much quicker than the alternative, something Grewal said has made the industry attractive to South Asians.
Despite Payne’s contention that most carriers in the Delta area employ around 95% South Asian drivers, Grewal said there are a few that remain resistant.
“I still do hear rumors of the odd trucking companies that will not hire immigrants from the South Asian community,” he said. “So definitely, there are some challenges, I believe due to communication barriers that may exist, or due to other cultural diversities.”
For the most part, however, particularly in the Lower Mainland, the majority of carriers welcome South Asians to their business.
“Like many immigrants coming into Canada, the South Asian community is known for working hard and being able to handle the long hours and challenges associated with long haul trucking,” said Grewal.
An example of that hard work was on display at a carrier Grewal previously worked. South Asian owner-operators were pulling in around $25,000 per month for team driving, and company executives used these drivers as an example to others of how much they could make if they wanted to put in the effort as an owner-operator.
“The lesson I learned from that experience is that sometimes just sharing your formula for success shouldn’t have cultural barriers,” said Grewal. “In a time where there are driver shortages, the more we can show there’s opportunity in our industry, we should.”
Shelley McGuinness, communications specialist with the B.C. Trucking Association (BCTA), said diversity in the trucking industry means additional hiring choices for carriers and a more welcoming environment for potential workers.
With the highest population of South Asians in Canada outside of Toronto, McGuinness said the area has a lot to offer.
“B.C. has lots going for it, beautiful scenery, mild climate in the Lower Mainland, and jobs,” she said. “The South Asian community here is long established, so there’s probably a sense of connection and helping hands in communities and the industry.”
Looking at statistics on South Asians in Canada, McGuinness is correct they have long been established in B.C., especially in trucking.
Since as far back as 1991, of the immigrants working in the industry, those from India made up 25.2%, and that number has only continued to rise. By 2001, that percentage reached 56.8%, and in 2016, 69.9% of all immigrant truck drivers were of Indian decent.
In Vancouver the numbers are even higher, with 38% of Indians making up the immigrant driver population in 1991, leaping to 70.5% in 2016.
Not even Toronto has such a high percentage of Indian drivers at 50% in 2016, and a mere 7.2% in 1991 – though the increase in the GTA would definitely suggest a “changing face of trucking” unlike in B.C., where there has long been a South Asian presence in the industry.
Other cities that have seen jumps in immigrant drivers from India between 1991 and 2016 include Calgary, going from 3.9% to 61.5%, Edmonton, 15.5% to 50%, and Winnipeg and Regina, which had no Indian drivers in 1991 and are now both at or above the 50% mark.
Overall in Canada, Indians make up 43.7% of the immigrant driver population.
As for the high number of South Asians moving to the Abbotsford area, Grewal said there are several reasons why so many have chosen to call the region home.
Lower commercial land prices and business startup costs, the conversion of farmlands into trucking yards around the regional airport, the employment of South Asian farm workers as drivers, and affordable housing, to name a few.
“There have been more and more trucking companies setting up in Abbotsford and many of these companies are South Asian,” he said. “I think a lot of this has to do with the Lower Mainland being expensive and Abbotsford was the next largest city outside the Lower Mainland to get commercial properties at a reasonable price.”
In addition to the South Asian community, Payne said Harbour Link has engaged in talks recently about where the next faces of their workforce will come from, with women and Aboriginals being two talent pools the company must tap into.
Regardless of where they find drivers, Payne said it can be tough for new recruits to break into the industry and get hired by reputable carriers, which often have higher standards for drivers, demanding more experience, a cleaner abstract, and even a minimum age.
“You can work for a company that has lower standards, but that’s a disservice to yourself as a professional driver,” he said, “because you’re going to work for a guy who just throws the keys at you and hopes you make it home.”
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