Searching for a path

by Adam Ledlow

TORONTO, Ont. – It’s the million-dollar question that keeps fleet owners up at night: What do drivers really want to make them happy? Higher pay might seem to be the obvious answer, but a recent study by Transportation Media Research, the research division of Truck News, has discovered that job satisfaction in the trucking industry may be far more complex than mere dollars and cents.

The study, which sampled responses from 438 drivers from across Canada, found that 79% of respondents wanted to receive additional training in a career path – a staggering amount for an industry believed to burn out employees faster than it can hire them.

In a similar driver survey, conducted by the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute in the ’90s, 83% of drivers indicated career advancement was important to them. Two-thirds of the drivers who responded to the UGPTI survey also said they would be more satisfied with their job if it included a realistic career path, while 60% said they would be less likely to quit their job. Despite this, 54% perceived the opportunities for advancement within their company as poor.

So what opportunities are available for drivers looking for a change? Josh Rose, manager of projects at the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council, says the opportunities for career paths are abundant in the trucking industry.

“If you get sick of driving, but you still like the lifestyle of being a truck driver, the camaraderie, and being on the road, but you don’t like the longhaul lifestyle, you probably need to become a trainer, working at a truck driver training school,” Rose suggests. “There are opportunities to become a coach and a mentor. There are opportunities to go from driving to dispatch or you can even go into sales. The opportunities are endless.”

And drivers are certainly interested. In a later study released by the UGPTI in 2000, it was found that drivers were interested in a variety of job responsibilities beyond driving. More than 60% said they were interested in becoming involved in customer service; 40% wanted to be involved in customer training; 56% wanted to participate in cost-reduction plans; and 43% wanted to supervise other drivers.

But despite an apparent endless amount of opportunities, many drivers still feel stuck behind the wheel. The problem, according to Roy Craigen, general manager of Transcom, is the attitude the trucking industry adopts when it hires new drivers.

“When we hire a professional driver, we hire them and pigeonhole them into a driver’s career with the expectation that he’ll stay there until he dies. We don’t hire them and say, ‘We’ll hire you for your first job, (but) we want you to think about your second job and you should be continuously learning to make that opportunity happen,'” Craigen told Truck News. “We also don’t have a corporate learning strategy inside the fleets that sets the stage for current drivers to learn the business side of (trucking) or the customer care components or the profit side of running a unit.”

The willingness to implement a proper learning strategy is a key component to helping driver turnover, Craigen says.

“We don’t want drivers going from a knee-jerk position of ‘I don’t want to drive anymore. Can I be a dispatcher?’ We want fleets to be saying, ‘We’re going to keep you learning from the time we hire you, so that if and when you have the inclination of doing something different, you’ll be ready.’ That way, we set them up for success instead of setting them up for frustration.”

Carriers must take this progressive approach to career paths if drivers are to be made aware of possible opportunities, Rose says.

“If they know what’s available to them, they can aspire to achieve it. They have to work for the right employer too; (one) who promotes advancement,” he says. “We have some very progressive companies in terms of promoting training and advancement. It just makes for a better all around working relationship. You can’t really go from driver to dispatcher to sales without the proper training or educational background.”

Companies that make a little extra investment in proper training and educational programs which promote advancement will probably experience greater loyalty than other companies, Rose says. But both parties must realize it’s a two-way street: employers must be willing to offer assistance, but drivers must also be willing to ask for it.

Driver attitude plays a huge role in successful advancement within the trucking industry. Just take 24-year-old former driver, Kevin Lachapelle. Lachapelle started his career with Principle Trucking in Fort St. John’s, Alta. as a lumper using a large picker truck. The young driver said he found the job both exciting and challenging each day, however, after losing his leg in an injury, his driving career was soon over. But rather than release him from the company, Lachapelle was hired on as middle management instead.

Lachapelle says many truckers feel as though they’ll be stuck behind the wheel for life because they choose to ignore their other skills.

“I find that people with a Class 1 licence resort to their Class 1 licence only as a source of income and don’t outsource their other skills and talents,” Lachapelle told Truck News from a Transcom event. “People spend time sitting on that licence and don’t feel that they’re good enough for anything else.”

But finding the time to pursue additional training for a new career in trucking isn’t always easy. The life of a trucker is a demanding one, with most drivers finding limited time to spend at home with loved ones. Finances are also a factor as many drivers feel they simply can’t afford to take the time off.

“A lot of guys are stuck because they’re up against mortgages, car payments, their kids are in school, they’ve got to buy groceries, and they’ve got to maintain their income level to maintain the lifestyle of their families. That alone is a barrier,” Craigen says.

He says if the industry is truly interested in hiring on drivers to positions like dispatcher, safety official or manager, it’s up to the training institute to modify the learning process to accommodate the lifestyle of the driver. For instance, stretching out two-year training programs over four or five years might allow a driver to pursue a career that might be too demanding otherwise, he says.

The transition from one job to the next doesn’t have to be as difficult as it’s often made out to be. Rose says a classic example of an easy transition is the move from longhaul driver to teacher at a driving school.

“It’s a career shift, but it’s not a lifestyle shift. You’re still in the truck, you’re still involved in the steering and gearing, you’re just passing on your knowledge. While they’re doing that, they’re also learning different skills in instruction and communication,” he says.

In response to the recent study by Transportation Media Research, KRTS Transportation Specialists has announced it will be leading the charge to assemble a task force to tackle the high demand for a career path for the trucking industry.

“A career path for our industry is vital to the success of industry if we are going to be successful at recruitment and retention,” says Kim Richardson, president of KRTS. “The results of Transportation Media Research validates what many in the industry believe has been needed for years.”

Richardson and a number of industry stakeholders are planning on having a round table in December to discuss the next steps.

Transcom is currently working with high-profile fleets across Canada on how to promote management and operational excellence, including its 60-hour dispatch/supervisor course. Craigen says that within a year, three drivers who took the dispatch course have already been promoted to management.

“We’re able to build the confidence, provide the skills, for the right-minded individual to enter the supervisory/dispatch management side of trucking as a new entry,” he says. “We’re not playing musical chairs from
one company to another, we’re adding new people into the operational side of trucking.”

Rose says the CTHRC is continuing to promote careers within the industry and is currently working on a ‘Careers in Trucking’ Web site. The CTHRC also offers a wage subsidy program for employers who hire new employees into the trucking industry between the ages of 19 and 30.

“I think we have to do a better job of targeting younger people and show them that there’s more to trucking than trucking,” he says. “There’s a whole slew of jobs and career options available to you. I think if we do that then hopefully we’ll eliminate some of these perceived shortages.”

But confidence is usually the number one hurdle to getting drivers involved in other trucking careers.

“It isn’t what they’ve done, it’s what they want to do,” Craigen says. “They need the mindset of ‘I want to reach out and grab a new opportunity. I want a lifestyle change. I feel I can make a difference.'”

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