This year I continued a long-standing tradition of dragging myself out of bed at some ungodly hours to tune in to the World Junior Hockey Championships.While our boys showed flashes of greatness, the ...
This year I continued a long-standing tradition of dragging myself out of bed at some ungodly hours to tune in to the World Junior Hockey Championships.
While our boys showed flashes of greatness, the Finns and the European game proved to be too much for them to handle (again).
Don’t get me wrong. Those kids played their hearts out, left everything they had on the ice and deserve our national respect and applause.
That being said, the top-notch Canadian game that ruled other hockey civilizations around the globe in the past appears to have vanished. It seems that our minor leagues have been turned into an assembly line churning out nothing but goons and also-rans.
The day Canada claimed a bronze-medal, overtime victory versus Sweden (which I watched at 4:00 a.m. with some friends here at the Southam office, by the way), I also had the opportunity to enjoy breakfast with Ernie Sager, a retiring trucker from St. George, Ont.
Ernie has spent the past 48 years running Ontario’s highways and byways and has definitely proven himself an all-star behind the wheel.
His tenure as a trucker included five years as a driver with Jones Transport, 16 years as a driver with Victoria Transport, 24 years as the owner/operator of Sager Transport and a final three years spent driving for Sager after he sold it in 1997.
Ernie says he racked-up more than four million miles without an accident; a record he says is due largely to his philosophy of relying on a lot of common sense and a little bit of luck thrown in for good measure.
But Ernie didn’t just keep the idea of safety to himself.
“Over 24 years and three weeks (owning Sager), we never had a motor vehicle accident, never filled out a compensation form and we never had a bad debt,” Ernie proudly beams. “In fact, I think we only had about two breakdowns, so very few Sager trucks ever saw a tow truck’s hook.”
He insists that although there is a job to be done, safety and courtesy have to be the foremost things in any trucker’s mind at all times.
In 1994, his first wife Mary passed away after battling illness since 1992. She had been his rock for years, handling the book-work and supporting his efforts in any way she could.
Life behind a desk lost its appeal and he eventually sold out in November of 1997.
“I’m a trucker through and through,” he says. “Every time somebody pulled out of our gate it bothered me that it wasn’t me driving.”
The problem was compounded by what Ernie sees as an overall decline in the quality of the North American work ethic.
He points to the folks who load steel onto rigs for a living, for example. If you look 25 years back, “they’d put that load right where you wanted it; even if it took them two or three tries to get it right.”
Nowadays, he says that people in the same position simply don’t care.
In trucking, he’s noticed a similar decline that began about 10 years ago.
“It’s gotten to the point that I’m often ashamed to call myself a truck driver,” he says. “As the need for drivers has grown, the class of driver on the road seems to have taken such a tumble.”
Obviously not every new driver fits this mold – just as every old one isn’t as responsible as Ernie. But, if Ernie’s experiences are true and the current driver shortage is lowering the hiring bar, what state will our industry be in eight years from now?
Currently the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council estimates that 20 to 30 per cent of today’s driver pool is expected to retire within eight years.
In the case of the owner/operators that our country relies so heavily upon, 35 per cent are aged 50 or older. In fact, 49 per cent of this vital group are more than 45 years old.
Fleets, provincial associations and other industry groups are doing everything they can to attract youthful replacements for these vanishing stalwarts. But almost as many who give trucking a try also decide its not for them.
Fleets need to focus just as hard on retaining these new drivers or they will end up being the ones who suffer the most in the end.
After meeting Ernie, I couldn’t help but notice a similarity between the hard times that have befallen our nation’s hockey program and what lies around the corner for the Canadian trucking industry.
As the names like Lindros, Jovanovski and Phillips that helped lead the team to five consecutive world titles have moved on, the Canadian Hockey League has been unable to reload the team with talent of the same calibre. The trucking community must also learn these lessons of developing young talent and giving it a chance to mature before applying too much pressure.
Otherwise, when all of the Ernie Sagers out there who are about to retire do disappear from our industry, the wisdom and common sense they’ve carried along our nation’s highways will be gone forever. That may leave the most vital link in Canada’s economy struggling for a third place performance amongst our NAFTA neighbors. n