REGINA, Sask. – Saskatchewan carriers are looking abroad to meet their driver needs as part of a pilot project that’s being closely watched by other provinces.
As part of the province’s aggressive immigration programs, the trucking industry has been allowed to fast-track foreign truck drivers through the immigration process.
So far nearly 300 truckers have been lured to the province from overseas and the Saskatchewan Trucking Association (STA) and participating carriers are deeming the program a resounding success.
“This type of program has a lot of merit to it, both for the economy and the trucking industry itself,” said STA executive director, Hank Wolbaum.
Like most provinces, Saskatchewan is facing a severe shortage of skilled workers in the transportation sector and others like it. One could argue the problem is exacerbated in Saskatchewan – a province with a population that has remained relatively stagnant since the 1930s.
That’s why the trucking industry has been aggressively pursuing drivers from overseas. The STA estimates that for every 100 new truckers brought into Saskatchewan, about $15 million per year is contributed to the province’s economy.
So far, three major carriers have been involved in the pilot project. Yanke Group, Siemens Transportation Group and Westcan Bulk Transport are the major players to date.
“It’s going very well, we’ve got about 55 drivers here and they’re all on the road and it’s going well,” said Brenda Cuthbert, corporate director of human resources with Siemens Transportation Group.
“At this point in time we could easily hire 50 more drivers into our company if we could find 50 drivers. We are having to turn down freight and having to disappoint our customers,” she added, noting the company offers overnight and two-day delivery service.
“These drivers have increased our customer service already.”
Drivers brought to Saskatchewan sign on for one year.
Their airfare to Canada (and back home if they decide to return) is covered by the carrier, but beyond that they are offered the exact same pay package and benefits as Canadian drivers.
After the one-year term expires, drivers who want to make Canada their permanent home can continue working in the province until an extension of their Visa is granted – or permanent residency, for that matter.
That’s exactly what Edge Transportation (a division of Siemens) driver Andrew Welch-Smith is hoping to achieve.
“I’m hoping to stay forever,” the flatbed hauler from England told Truck West.
Welch-Smith brought his wife and two children to Canada with him and they have all embraced the Canadian lifestyle.
He’s pursuing his permanent citizenship so he can continue driving truck on this side of the pond. While Welch-Smith admits there was initially a learning curve (double-clutching, crossing into the U.S. and covering thousands of kilometres in a single run were all new to him), he insists the lifestyle for professional drivers is far greater in Canada than in the UK.
“There is a lot more respect over here for drivers,” Welch-Smith said.
“Everyone has a pretty dim view of truck drivers in England. Here, you’re not a second class citizen like you are in England. It’s difficult to get used to the gearbox but now it’s second nature. It’s been brilliant – it’s all been pretty smooth.”
So far, the program has targeted drivers from the UK since those drivers should have the easiest adjustment to life in Canada.
The STA said the majority of truckers who have participated in the program feel the same way as Welch-Smith, and that’s good news to Cuthbert.
“If we get 75 per cent staying, we’ll be extremely happy,” she said, adding she’s confident that target will be achieved.
While some drivers have returned to the UK due to personal reasons (such as family illnesses), the majority of Siemens’ drivers have expressed an interest in staying in Canada long-term.
While no definitive numbers from across the board are yet available, Wolbaum said preliminary results suggest a success rate of about 80 per cent.
And that’s why other carriers within the province are chomping at the bit to see the program expanded.
“They want this program to continue and to grow,” Wolbaum said. “They would like to see the number of drivers allowed into the program to grow exponentially. If we had a choice, we could bring thousands of new drivers into the program and not put a dent into our requirements.”
But what do the province’s born-and-bred Canadian drivers have to say about that?
“There hasn’t really been a backlash at all about the number of drivers,” said Wolbaum, referring to the response from local drivers.
“The drivers out there have welcomed the drivers from the UK as being part of the brotherhood.”
Meanwhile, provincial associations and governments from outside Saskatchewan have been keen observers of the pilot project.
“We’ve received calls from numerous provinces that have asked us for the blueprint of any information we can give to them because HRDC (Human Resources Development Canada) has focused on Saskatchewan as being the leader in this type of program and therefore all the other provincial associations have been contacting us and asking what has worked and what hasn’t worked,” Wolbaum said. n