THE FACE OF TRUCKING: Seniors like Les McCulloch, 71, are the new face of trucking. Photo by Harry Rudolfs
TORONTO, Ont. – Like a division of Energizer bunnies marching in formation, thousands of senior citizen truck drivers are refusing to slow down and hang up their keys.
According to new figures from Statistics Canada, 4,310 seniors (over the age of 65) were working as commercial drivers in 2001, an astounding 83 per cent increase over 1996. And senior women drivers were also on the move. Sixty were driving truck in 2001, a 500 per cent increase over the 12 per cent that were doing so in 1996.
It follows that these senior truckers are a hot commodity in an industry struggling to find warm bodies to put in trucks.
“I love them,” says Brian Dunford director of driver services for Laidlaw Tank Group Inc. in Woodstock, Ont. “We have at least 10 drivers that are over 65, including one guy who is 72. They’re from the old school; they just take the load and go, never give you an argument.”
This is a new category of professional driver – highly skilled and qualified individuals with decades of experience and (usually) excellent driving records.
Not merely knights of the road, these drivers are more like the senators, or at least the tribal elders of our freeways. And the word “old school” keeps coming up when you talk to safety and operations managers about them.
Les McCulloch, 71, of Ajax, Ont., fits the profile. His grey beard is neatly trimmed and he dresses impeccably (sweater and tie) as he sips coffee at a Whitby, Ont. truck stop. “I’ve been driving trucks for 54 years and I’ve never considered it a job – it’s my hobby,” he says.
McCulloch drove for Yellow Freight Systems until forced to retire at age 65. But the change was traumatic for him. For 10 days he anguished about what to do with himself.
“Those were the most miserable 10 days of my life,” says McCulloch’s wife Margaret. “He’d lay down on the couch with a remote, you couldn’t talk to him and he was short tempered. Finally I blurted out, ‘will you tell me what is wrong with you?’ He looked at me so sadly and said, ‘I don’t have a job.'”
The solution came in the form of an Oshawa driver service that was only too happy to sign up the newly minted senior. “It didn’t start out as full time, but if you’re ready and willing to work they would always find work for you,” he says.
These days, McCulloch works part -time, two to four days per week, hauling auto parts for General Motors. But he likes to pick his spots.
Occasionally he delivers new Peterbilts to dealerships around Ontario. “This is the icing on the top of long driving career – driving new Petes with eight clicks on the odometer. To tell you the truth, I’d do it even if they didn’t pay me.”
Like many other senior truck drivers, McCulloch is less than enthusiastic about the yearly medical, written and driving tests that he is required to go through to keep his AZ licence.
“I’d never even taken a driving test until I turned 65,” he says. “And they (ministry officials) seem to make it harder when you reach 70. It’s very tough, mentally more than anything else. You’re afraid you’re going to forget something. And some of the inspectors are less than fair.”
In one examination, McCulloch failed his test because he performed his air system inspection in the wrong order. Last year he was surprised to find out drivers are now required to bring safety goggles and a hard hat to the test.
But ultimately, McCulloch thinks he will be the one to decide when to quit trucking.
“I’ll know when the time comes and the job isn’t fun anymore, and my wife will probably know before me.”
Interestingly, there may be many more truckers claiming to be retired who are working part or full time and not declaring their earnings.
Sixty-five-year-old Gary North (not his real name) is a case in point. Almost two years ago North sold his truck and decided to take early retirement.
But economic circumstances forced him back on the road. “You always need money and I still like driving,” says North. Currently he is running two loads a week for a farm distribution company in central Ontario and getting paid cash.
“I don’t feel bad about collecting my pension and working a bit,” he says. “I’ve paid those suckers enough over the years.”