Hard Lessons

Mike Pastorek has heard all the excuses. A truck driver innocently-but insistently and repeatedly-asks for help reading a memo or a manifest (he says he left his glasses at home). Or the driver will only accept regular routes, and when his delivery run includes a new destination, he phones the dispatcher to ask for verbal directions. Or when the driver is presented with a new work contract, he says he wants to discuss it with his wife before he even glances at the papers.

To Pastorek, operations manager at Toronto-based RIM Transportation, the signs of illiteracy are as plain as black letters on a crisp white page. “Truck drivers who are illiterate are very skilled people,” he says. “They’re wonderfully creative in trying to find ways to accomplish their task.” They’ll ask questions, bluff, or make hit-and-miss attempts until they succeed. They’ll navigate by road numbers or landmarks. They’ll stop at the same places when they’re on the road because they’re the only names they know how to write in their logbook.

With time they develop a “feel” for what to try and what not to try. After that, he says, it’s all memory and routine.

Given the shortage of qualified professional truck drivers, it’s tempting for fleet managers and dispatchers to look the other way when they recognize signs that a driver may have trouble reading or writing, either because he dropped out of school and did not have the opportunity to learn, or because he has a disability that makes learning difficult.

The issue is further complicated by the influx of immigrants who are skilled drivers and literate in their native tongue but not English or French.

Many illiterate drivers constantly weigh the shame of not being proficient readers or writers against the fear of not being able to maintain employment if their supervisors ever discover their handicap. Ironically, their bosses may not be paying attention. Literacy is a training issue few companies address in any formal way.

The statistics suggest that more should. It’s estimated that 15% of Canadian adults have less than a Grade 9 education, and 20% to 25% have difficulty with everyday tasks such as reading, writing, responding to mail, and understanding memos.

While the illiteracy rate in the trucking industry is a hard number to pin down, you can easily assert that it’s worse than the national norm. Thirty years ago, truck drivers were among the highest paid blue-collar workers in Canada. Well-educated people left other careers because of the financial reward the industry offered, a situation that has changed due to static pay levels in recent years. The trucking industry also misses out on the top blue-collar high school graduates because they can’t be employed until they’re 21.

This is all happening at a time when the literacy demands on truck drivers are increasing. A recent occupational analysis by the Ottawa-based Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council identifies 13 essential skills a truck driver needs, and the top three require proficiency in language: reading text, using documents (interpreting road maps, bills of lading, etc.), and basic writing. For over-the-road drivers, more north-south trade has meant more trips to the United States, where English predominates, and more paperwork required to move the freight, the truck, and themselves across the international border.

Safety is another concern. “If someone can’t read a warning sign or specific directions for handling dangerous goods, there could be a safety problem for the individual as well as others around,” says Linda Gauthier, CTHRC director of programs. “You’re putting someone in a position where they can endanger other people’s lives when you should be trying to minimize accidents with good people and equipment.”

As an employer, what can you do?

Refusing to hire an illiterate person is one way of dealing with the issue. But remember that federal and provincial rules make it illegal for employers to discriminate against a qualified person with a disability in hiring, firing, salary, training, and promotion matters. If the prospective driver is shown to have a learning disability, like dyslexia, which causes readers to see scrambled words and sentences, you could be on shaky legal ground.

Another answer is to determine, from a corporate policy and operations standpoint, just how literate your truck drivers need to be. A person moving gravel around a quarry doesn’t require the same ability to read and write as a guy hauling produce for a market distributor who may get involved in selling the product and dealing with a number of addressed deliveries. Still, you may decide that you have a responsibility to help a driver learn to be a better reader and writer regardless of what his job entails and want to offer help.

At a very basic level, truck drivers need to know how to read a bill of lading, write a manifest, fill out a logbook, and communicate with the shippers, receivers, supervisors, and enforcement officials he comes in contact with, says Peter Million, manager of driver recruiting for Schneider National Canada.

“If you can’t read road signs and get along with police officers and customs officials, you have a deficiency that needs to be addressed,” says Million, adding that drivers must have a working knowledge of English before his company will hire them for cross-border runs. “We’re not looking for Rhodes scholars, but if they truly don’t understand the questions we ask, we wouldn’t offer them a job no matter how many trucks we had sitting in the lot.”

Million suggests that training schools-which usually get the first look at a new driver at the grassroots level-ought to shoulder some of the responsibility for ensuring that their graduates are literate enough to be productive, safe, professional truck drivers. He questions the motives of driving schools that accept tuition from ethnic students, especially-fees that could amount to someone’s entire savings-yet provide little training beyond what’s required to pass the road portion of the licence exam.

It’s true that some people who struggle with literacy are waiting to be discovered and want to be helped. But the reality is that most have spent their lives trying to hide their handicap. Once you discover that a driver has a problem, and you decide that you want to offer help, you have to address the driver with complete sensitivity. “You try not to be confrontational,” says RIM’s Mike Pastorek. “Drivers are very proud and you can’t push them into a corner.”

That’s the right approach, says Ann Marston, program coordinator for the Edmonton-based Project Adult Literacy Society (PALS). You have to be tactful.

“You just can’t walk up and say, ‘You have a problem and what are you going to do about it,’ ” she says. “Take the person aside with a we type of approach. ‘How can we fix it.’ If you put it all on the employee’s head, you’re probably going to get a very hostile employee.”

Determining the type of help the worker needs is important, says Marston (see sidebar). Various tests can be used to measure a person’s reading ability, and there are numerous public and private resources for drivers with reading problems. General courses offered through literacy groups are free and typically involve one-on-one tutoring. If you operate in the United States, your employee assistance program mandated by U.S. drug testing laws may offer literacy training. Most EAPs provide services far beyond counselling for substance abuse.

This is where the employer can perhaps play the biggest role, Marston says. The employer has a responsibility to direct the employee to a place where he can learn, and then to support him by budgeting time for learning and work. The amount of time required for remedial training varies from one person to the next, but learning to read and write proficiently doesn’t come in weeks, months, or sometimes even years.

It’s not uncommon for an employer to question the return on the training investment. Marston says that other than strengthening the safety and productivity of the fleet, employers should at the very least consider their employee’s situation from a humanitarian viewpoint. Furthermore, in a time of high turnover and low moral among drivers in the industry, the benefits of helping a driver learn to read and write may appear in a less obvious way.

“Of course, that employee would certainly have reason to be grateful,” says Marston. “Especially if the person is on the ball and a good worker at everything else. The person you help could very easily become your most dedicated and loyal employee.”

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