Over the last year, a flurry of new regulations — including a controversial hours-of-service regime that might limit a truck driver’s workday — has whipped up chatter about driver recruiting and retention. More chatter than usual, that is.
In Canada, qualified truck drivers continue to be in short supply, a problem that’s only expected to worsen. While the industry has vacancies for an estimated 50,000 drivers, the average age of the country’s truck-driver population is one of the highest in any industrial sector. The percentage of Canadian workers between the ages of 45 to 64 swelled by 36 per cent over the last 10 years to 7.3 million, while 25- to 34-year-olds have declined by 18 per cent to four million — and still falling.
What’s the solution? One option is to keep the drivers you already have. That means paying more even if they’re driving less, something truck drivers and their employers are grappling with right now. Some carriers have argued successfully for higher rates, saying they’ll pass the increase along to their drivers.
For some carriers, though, a response to the driver shortage is to recruit and hire immigrants. According to Statistics Canada, immigrants represented 70 per cent of total growth in the country’s labour force during the 1990’s. And they gravitate to truck driving for two simple reasons: it’s a job they can readily qualify for, and the work is steady. Some employers hire immigrants because they’ll tolerate low pay. In some cases, this may actually contribute to the driver shortage because cheap labour tends to suppress industry pay rates, making driving jobs less appealing to a large slice of the labour pool. But that doesn’t mean immigration’s proponents are wrong. They insist rates can only climb so high, and in the meantime immigrants are the only ones filling out applications.
On the other hand, in the eyes of most immigrants, driving a truck is no more appealing than any other blue-collar job. So even though 75 per cent of the immigrants who arrive in Canada fall into the “unskilled labour” category, they view trucking (or any other labour-intensive work) as a stepping stone. Eighty years ago, Western Europeans came to North America and dug ditches because they hoped their children, or at least their grandchildren, wouldn’t have to. There’s no reason to assume the new wave of immigrants — many from former Soviet bloc countries, North Africa, and the Middle East –are any different. In fact, countless immigrant truck drivers held skilled positions in their homelands.
Immigrants arrive in Canada in one of three categories: those admitted on a temporary worker’s permit, as a refugee, or as a permanent resident’/landed immigrant. Most permanent residents are in the Family Class, which requires sponsorship by a relative already in Canada, or Independent/Skilled Worker Class, where a person is admitted based on his job skills. So if, according to CIC, only 30 per cent of immigrants qualify through sponsorship, and being a truck driver in their home country doesn’t get immigrants enough points for a “skilled worker” title, where are many of the immigrant truckers coming from?
“You’d be amazed how many truck drivers were once teachers or engineers in their homelands,” says Kim Richardson, owner of KRTS driving school in Caledonia, Ont. “The thing is, Canada doesn’t recognize their credentials at par for some of those jobs. They usually need more schooling or experience. In many cases, trucking is subsidizing their livelihood until they can move into their chosen profession. In others, they stay in the job because they end up liking it, or get too comfortable to do anything else.”
As Canada’s immigrant driver population grows, fleet managers must learn how to deal with this new multicultural manpower. Although being able to read and write English is a prerequisite for obtaining a licence to drive commercial vehicles in most provinces, the degree of “fluency” necessary for the job can sometimes become a matter of opinion.
It’s crucial that drivers can at least converse with co-workers, dispatchers, and customers. Moreover, driving into Quebec and understanding its unique language requirements is a challenge for almost any driver on his first couple of trips to La Belle Province, much less a newcomer who grew up learning neither of Canada’s official languages.
“We need to make a real effort to acknowledge cultural differences as well as immigrants’ life experiences,” says Bill Kalbhenn, GM of risk management for Highland Transport in Markham, Ont. “Explaining how different situations may be dealt with differently or certain things said differently in Canada than where (immigrants) come from is critical for anyone hiring immigrant drivers.”
If not addressed, simple misunderstandings can cause problems within the company and perhaps eventually turn some customers off –especially in an industry that falls back on a blend of jargon and slang more than grammar-school English.
“Let’s face it. There’re some people in trucking that have some strong opinions on immigrant drivers,” says Richardson. “Sometimes immigrants are perceived as rude. That doesn’t mean they are, of course, but if a customer may not be familiar with certain customs or how something is said, he may get insulted. And vice-versa: drivers may feel they’ve been slighted when they probably haven’t.”
How managers interact with immigrant drivers can come down to how both parties interpret a single situation. Inevitably, it’s up to the manager to ensure both he and the driver are on the same page. For example, some immigrants, particularly those from former Soviet bloc countries and the Middle East, come from environments that have conditioned them to be mistrustful of authority.
“There are times where a manager may be offering constructive criticism, for example, and immigrants may interpret that they’re in trouble or doing a bad job,” says Kalbhenn. “It’s important to find ways to carefully explain what you mean and make sure they understand exactly where you’re coming from.”
Rob Gaw, risk manager for Cloverdale, B.C.-based Coastal Pacific Xpress, has created an entire department to deal with the issue. The Driver Resource Centre, as it’s been named, helps drivers get accustomed to the industry, its lingo, and best practices. It also provides outside professional help, such as lawyers or accountants.
This type of department could also help avoid troublesome internal politics. Some managers, for example, might give little thought to pairing two drivers from the Middle East, even though they’re from different countries. Asking an Iraqi to work with an Iranian might be asking for trouble, depending on how strong each driver is tied to homeland politics.
In the post-Sept. 11 environment, drivers with darker skin sometimes receive extra scrutiny at the border. Again, managers need to prepare drivers for the overzealous border guard.
Gaw — who in the months after Sept. 11 told this magazine that some of his Sikh drivers were trading in their turbans for baseball caps to avoid scrutiny at the border — says racial profiling still occurs despite denials from the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.
Kim Richardson schedules field trips to the border where students hear about crossing procedures from customs and immigration officers from Canada and the United States. The five-hour sessions cover entry procedures, paper work, and, importantly for immigrants, review the types of questions drivers are asked when entering the U.S. and how to answer them.
“We find this essential with immigrants these days. Some of them are scared. The first time these guys cross that border, some of them think they may never be coming back,” says Richardson, who conducts similar orientation classes with enforcement officials at weigh scales.
As important as it’s going to be, immigration alone will not solve Canada’s driver shortage. But that means immigrant drivers will be even hotter commodities and more fleets will have to scramble to compete for their services.
The winners, says Gaw, will be those companies who recognize and accommodate the differences of immigrant drivers. The recruits will go to fleets that make the extra effort — and it should be apparent in everything from hiring managers with similar backgrounds to recognizing dietary issues at the company barbecue.
“People think by doing such things you’re bending over backwards or changing your company culture,” says Gaw. ‘”You’re not. You’re just being more inclusive.”
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