Top execs, drivers compare notes during panel discussion

by Adam Ledlow

TORONTO, Ont. – Some of trucking’s top executives and top drivers met to discuss the lengthy list of problems plaguing the industry at the Ontario Trucking Association’s (OTA) 79th Annual Convention at the Toronto Congress Centre Nov. 18.

Providing an opening to the panel discussion was Jim Johnston, president of the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association in Grain Valley, Mo., who spoke about the future of O/Os.

The former O/O of 13 years let everyone know right off the bat that his speech wouldn’t be the “warm, fuzzy part” of the morning event.

He told the audience how the current driver shortage first became apparent in 1989, when O/Os first became “casualties in a predatory rate war.” To compensate for a 70 per cent turnover rate, qualification standards for drivers have been lowered, according to Johnston.

“I see the industry going full-circle back to the pre-regulation days of the 1930s,” he said.

He predicts driver numbers will continue to dip over the next few years, unless shortsighted carriers stop viewing drivers as an expendable commodity and pretending safety is the number one priority.

“I would like nothing more than to be the wrong about these predictions,” he said, “but the only way to overcome the driver shortage is to get customers to pay us more so we can pay our drivers more.”

After Johnston came a panel of drivers, followed by a panel of top carrier executives. Moderator Doug Switzer of the OTA posed both groups with a series of questions to inspire debate. The first question, asking whether there are too many unqualified drivers on the road, received a resounding “yes” from the driver panel.

“I see a lot of drivers going down the road acting like cars,” said Trevor Weir, an OTA Road Knight from Thomson Terminals Ltd. Weir said the problem lies with certain “revolving-door” training programs which whisk drivers through the certification process in less than two weeks.

“You can’t put a commercial driver with only 10 days of training and no experience behind the wheel hauling 100,000 lbs.,” he said.

Norm Sneyd, president of Highland Transport in Markham, Ont., agreed with the driver panel, saying he was appalled at the number of drivers that can’t pass a road test. He placed the onus on the Ministry of Transport, saying it has to raise its skills standards. L.E. Walker Transport president Julie Tanguay said that as companies they are required to take control of the situation.

“We can’t put drivers behind the wheel out of desperation,” she said.

Though Switzer’s next question about the driver shortage produced a mixed response from both panels as to the severity of the shortage, all were in agreement that something needs to be done to recruit and retain new drivers.

Weir said the driver shortage is a problem with a seemingly simple solution: find a way to keep the drivers happy.

Tanguay said L.E. Walker has been doing just that for years and only now other companies are starting to catch up to them.

“We’ve been doing the right thing for many years,” she said. “We treat them like human beings, we always have.”

She said much of L.E. Walker’s success at retaining drivers has been by not giving potential employees a sales pitch but by telling them what the company can really offer. As well, she believes her company’s commitment to safety and genuine concern for employee well-being gives it an edge over the competition.

Maryann Geertsema from Kriska Transportation echoed Tanguay’s sentiments, but from a driver’s perspective.

“We’re people too. Treat us like people,” she said. “I’m not just a truck driver.”

Brian Taylor, president of Liberty Linehaul, said his organization has a great staff working for it with management doing its best to actually listen to employees and treat them like people. He also said it’s important for carriers to think outside the box instead of just doing what they’ve always done.

“Sometimes you think you’re doing what’s best for the driver, when it’s really not what they want at all,” he said.

Sneyd warned carriers not to hire their own retention problems and make sure that the driver is right for them. But since losing drivers is basically inevitable, he said it’s important for the company to follow up and find out why they left.

Both panels noted that the industry needs to go a lot further to recognize the importance of drivers. As Weir said, “If drivers all decided they wouldn’t go to work one day, where would we be?”

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