Holding Out For Home-grown

Watch the front door of Sarnia Paving Stone in Sarnia, Ont., and you’d never know there’s a looming driver shortage.

There’s a steady stream of unemployed truckers leaving their resumes and filling in applications, hoping to get regular work at the 52-truck fleet in the southwestern corner of the province.

And it’s not like owner Dino Caschera doesn’t want to hire them. He figures his business is poised to grow — perhaps even double in size — over the next few years. If the drivers meet his rigorous standards, he’d put them in a truck in a minute.

The problem is he can’t get coverage for many of them unless they meet the insurance company’s even tougher standards.

“It can be more than a little frustrating,” he says. “Here’s a young person, just getting started, full of energy, willing to learn, and all ready to go, but then the insurance puts the brakes on.”

Caschera goes on his gut instincts about prospective drivers. Are they natural drivers? Are they trainable? Are they presentable? The insurance companies, on the other hand, look strictly at the numbers.

They need to see a certain number of accident free miles and at least three years of clean driving before they’ll insure someone. Without the insurance company’s blessing, his broker told him, the prospective hires were non-starters.

And that leaves Caschera in the pinch of a driver shortage.

“It’s frustrating for sure,” he says. His company wants to grow but is stalled for lack of new talent.

Caschera started Sarnia Paving Stone 25 years ago, after getting his early training at his uncle Joe Ferrara’s ready-mix plant in Sarnia. He saw a need for carriers in the local construction industry, so he started his own company delivering concrete and interlocking stone.

As the market changed, he moved into regional construction and excavation work, using tri-axle, dump trucks, and gravel trailers. Eventually he turned his attention to long-haul trucking, pulling dry van loads throughout North America.

So Sarnia Paving Stone is really two companies in one, he says, with 22 long-haul highway tractors for OTR trucking, and a fleet of tri-axle dump trucks, flat-bed haulers, and gravel haulers serving the construction industry.

They use company drivers only — about 60 of them — and Dino says keeping them busy has never been a problem, even in the darkest days of the recent recession.

“Long-haul freight dried up a bit, but when the government started pumping money into infrastructure, rebuilding roads and bridges, that kind of played into our hand. That end of things took right off,” he says. “We just unhooked from the van trailers and started pulling dump trailers or flat-bed or gravel haulers. Our drivers went to work every day.”

He admits there was some downward pressure on rates, but much of what he was carrying was just-in-time freight, and the biggest concern was just getting it where it needed to be.

“If we only pulled vans and needed to keep them full to survive, yeah, we might have done what so many other companies did and drop our rates just to keep things moving,” he says. “But because we’re pretty diversified, we could just unhook those dry vans, leave them in the yard, hook up to the dump trailers and get back to work.”

The dump truck rental business he started up has been booming of late. In fact, they had to move into a large new building in 2008 with more room for maintenance to keep the growing fleet in good condition. This at a time when most trucking companies were getting very nervous about just surviving.

But while finding work wasn’t an issue, finding workers was.

“I was kind of waiting for when other companies started shutting down or reducing their fleets from 60 trucks to 30,” he says. “I figured there were going to be all kinds of drivers looking for work. I thought they’d knock our door down, but it just didn’t happen.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t have people showing up every single day looking for a job. They just don’t have enough experience to satisfy the insurance company.

So he was impressed with an idea brought to him by his safety and compliance manager, Judy McKeegan. She recalled all the talk about developing an Ontario apprenticeship program for tractor-trailer commercial drivers a few years back.

She hadn’t heard much about it since the downturn in the economy. Maybe it was time to try to develop their own apprenticeship program. After all, they had a versatile business, with two former driver trainers on staff.

They developed a rigorous in-house training program and early this year it was approved by the province’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

“For me, as their safety person, that’s huge,” she says, “because there aren’t a lot of other carriers that offer apprenticeships. We have an excellent training program, recognized by the ministry, and you get a job at the end of it.”

Caschera says the solution seemed tailor-fit for Sarnia Paving Stone.

“You take a fellow just out of school, put him into our apprenticeship program, and if he does well at that, we end up with a driver that’s trained the way we think he ought to work. And the insurance company is on board with us, saying he’s good to go,” he says. “It’s a win-win-win, and we’re pretty excited about it.”

Cam Blair, an insurance broker with Stevenson & Hunt Insurance Brokers works with a number of transportation companies in and around London, Ont. He recognizes the inherent problem that new drivers face when dealing with insurance companies.

“They’re right to say, ‘If you’re not going to let me on until I have experience, how am I going to get the experience?’ That’s certainly the challenge,” he says, particularly when they’re trying to join a small- or mid-sized carrier with under 50 power units.

“When adding a driver, those companies really have to jump through hoops,” he says.

“The big fleets have more clout. When you’ve got several hundred or a thousand power units, you have a whole office of safety-compliance people, you have driver trainers on staff, so you can afford to bring in these younger drivers, train them and continue to test them to ensure they’re adequate drivers. You also have more lanes so you can start them off local and have them graduate to long haul.”

He says insurance companies recognize the better driving schools and will sometimes reward their graduates with years of experience, but even still, new drivers are a big risk for them.

Blair says the route that Sarnia Paving Stone has gone, offering an apprenticeship program, is definitely a way to mitigate that risk and earn some flexibility from the insurance companies.

“I’m pleased with what I’ve seen so far,” he says.

Caschera says the program is not only a way to get insurance for his new hires but allows him to start off small.

“As an owner, I don’t want to throw just anybody into a truck. I want to make sure the driver is safe on the road. I don’t want anybody hurt, and I don’t need any dents and bruises on the trucks.”

Here’s how his apprenticeship program works:

Candidates must be at least 28 years old and pass Caschera’s rigorous screening process. He’s got to have a good feeling about them or he won’t make an investment in them.

Once they’re in the program, they learn every aspect of the business, working with the dump truck trainer as well as the long-haul trainer. They won’t go on the road unaccompanied until they’ve proven their skills.

Over 30 to 34 weeks, they’ll receive 2,100 hours of training on all aspects of driving, including the classroom stuff like customs, weights, rules and regs, and security.

“Sarnia Paving Stone is so diverse that we can offer all of those training modules,” says compliance manager McKeegan. “And each module has to be logged and signed off.”

Once they get going they’ll be able to handle six or eight new drivers a year… and that will go a long way to solving their driver shortage.

“At the end of the process we hope to have a driver who’s pretty well-rounded. And we’ll be able to supply him with a truck and a job,” says Caschera. “Yes, it’s going to cost us more upfront, and if they flunk out it’s money gone. But it’s money gone whenever you hire somebody and it doesn’t work out. If he misses a pick or gives customers a hard time, in one trip he can cost me money and aggravation, without even hitting anything. Ultimately you have to fire him and now you’ve got a truck sitting again.”

He says his goal is to attract good drivers, train them well, and keep them for the long term.

“We could graduate three or four a year if all goes well, and we could keep them all,” he says. “We’re planning to grow the company. We plan on expanding.”

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