Who Will Drive?

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If you asked 10 fleet managers, each with 100 trucks, if they were experiencing a shortage of truck drivers, each might say he could easily use a dozen additional drivers. They may not have 12 trucks parked against the fence, but they’d argue that they’d be able to move more freight if they had more help. The likely answer to the question would suggest a perceived shortage of 120 drivers. But none of the fleets would report a shortage of help acute enough to require some radical solution to make up the shortfall.

Presently, the market isn’t behaving as if there was an acute shortage. We’ve seen no real upswing in wages, especially for owner-operators, and few significant enhancements to the driving job. All this suggests that there’s no real pressure on the industry to do something to keep the existing workforce in place, or to attract new drivers into the business. However, with many aspects of the driving job losing their appeal (stricter enforcement, more time away from home, longer waiting periods at shipper’s docks, higher U.S. exchange rates, etc.), drivers are beginning to vote with their feet. More and more are expressing reluctance to work south of the border, they’re resisting long tours of duty, and they’re playing the market in search of what they perceive to be better jobs. Or, they’re exiting the industry altogether.

From the driver’s perspective, the costs associated with the job are increasing at a time when the value accrued from being a driver is declining. Yet, because the supply of drivers appears to be adequate-the turnover issue not withstanding-the need to change the way the industry does business in order to maintain an adequate workforce hasn’t become desperate enough to drive a significant shift in the way the industry deals with drivers.

So, do we have a driver shortage in Canada? The short-term answer appears to be no, but the long-term answer can only be yes. And therein lies the problem-or three problems, to be precise. If the first two aren’t addressed, the third may be insurmountable. Short-term thinking seldom leads to long-term solutions.

1. The Demographic Challenge

The first undeniable truth is that the average age of the driver population is one of the oldest in any industrial sector in Canada, meaning that as they age, drivers’ priorities change. Their willingness to work as hard as they once did, or to take risks, is diminishing, and sooner rather than later, they’ll be retiring.

Over the past decade, the older working-age population (45 to 64) has increased by 36 per cent, soaring from 5.4 million to almost 7.3 million. Over the next 10 years, that number is expected to swell to 9.5 million.

The group behind them, the 35- to 44-year-old crowd, increased by 17 per cent to 5.1 million, while the next youngest generation, the 25- to 34-year-olds, has declined by 18 per cent over a 10-year period to below 4 million.

What this means is that as a very large crowd of people prepares to retire, there’s a much smaller group of people coming up from behind to take their place.

Figures from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s driver licensing bureau indicate that the population of Class A licence holders in that province is following a trend similar to the national population aging trend. These are figures are from 1997 records. Today, the groups reflected are four years closer to retiring than shown here:

Age No. of Class A Holders
21-24 4,144
25-34 34,447
35-44 48,702
45-54 38,469
55-59 11,379

The two largest groups, 35-44 and 45-54, are the largest, with considerably fewer individuals in the younger age ranges. At the surface, this suggests that there will be fewer licensed drivers available in a decade or so, but an examination of the national aging trend suggests a more complex problem lies below the surface.

Not only will fewer people enter the workforce in the coming decade, those individuals will have a much broader menu of career options to choose from as the vacancies created by the retiring workers reveal themselves, and technology makes more career options available. And we haven’t yet begun to consider what intergenerational career and lifestyle preferences will mean to the trucking industry. Where will trucking stand on the career preference scale?

2. Who wants this job?

The second undeniable truth we need to examine is that fewer young people see trucking as a viable career option.

Many veteran drivers will tell you they’d sooner see their sons and daughters in boot camp than driving a truck for a living. While the risks associated with being a mediocre trucker continue to rise, the return for being a good trucker is diminishing. The pressure the system imposes on its employees, coupled with stagnant wages, the ever-present threat of enforcement, and the lack of job satisfaction, are conspiring to force many older drivers to re-examine their commitment to the trucking industry.

Fewer drivers would recommend trucking as a career, and if a young person has an older relative who drives, chances are he’s heard all about the downside of the job. In alienating its workforce, the industry runs a serious risk of losing one of its greatest recruitment assets.

Out of 13 high school guidance counsellors contacted in the preparation of this story, only two said truck driving was a career path they’d recommend to a student, and both were in rural areas of the country (Manitoba and New Brunswick).

And there’s another trend emerging in high schools that may not bode well for the trucking industry; a higher emphasis on academic performance and literacy, combined with more career-oriented skills training and expanded apprenticeship training opportunities.

While these can only be seen as advantageous to society, it broadens young people’s career options. Historically speaking, the trucking industry’s labour pool has been the vocationally or mechanically inclined male, typically soldiers, farmers, and the like. With a better education, and with “blue collar” jobs in heavy industry and manufacturing drying up, fewer men are inclined to see trucking as an attractive alternative to factory work or manual labour.

In Ontario, right now, there are over 6,000 students and 4,000 employers participating in the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program, which allows high school students to train in a skilled trade while completing their education. The construction industry-a major competitor for young to middle aged males-is playing a leading role in this venture. Where does this leave trucking?

Trucking faces competition from a vast range of careers, including hundreds that didn’t even exist a generation ago, many attainable with only a college diploma or a modest amount of post-secondary education. Many offer better pay, more attractive futures, and more defined opportunities for advancement than the trucking industry can.

Here’s what Dale Ritchie, president and CEO of McKenzie College in Halifax had to say in comparing a computer animation course at his school to the skills acquired at a truck driving school. “In 10 months, at a cost of $6,000, I can put a student into a $20 per hour entry-level job they can literally do at home. The skills are portable and they earn while they learn. There’s tremendous demand for IT skills, and there’s tremendous flexibility associated with a job like this.”

Contrast that statement to this one of Ted Sparkes, proprietor of the Atlantic Transport Training Academy, an accredited and reputable trucking school in Apohaqui, N.B.: “Two years ago, I’d have had a full class of students on the go, and 20 more inquiring about a career, 75% of them between the ages of 19 and 34, and 25% of those people are changing careers mid-stream. Today, my phone isn’t even ringing. I could easily place 200 students into 200 jobs right now.”

This brings us around to the third and far-from-final challenge: training and developing those still interested in becoming truck drivers.

3. You get what you pay for

The third undeniable truth is that trucking makes an appallingly small investment in its workforce. Why should it come as a surprise that the entry-level skills of the typical new driver aren’t what trucking operations would like them to be?

This industry constantly bemoans the shortage of qualified drivers. So, what is “qualified”? Is it right to expect only experienced, road-ready veterans to be out looking for work? The experienced drivers already have jobs. The industry should be looking for trainable drivers. The Class A or Class 1 licence, like a bachelor’s degree, should be seen as nothing more than a licence to learn. A college or university graduate entering the workforce is competent to start the job, but they’re not experts. Most employers expect to make substantial investments in the education and training of their employees.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for the trucking industry. A study commissioned by the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (CCMTA) showed that improvements in the quality of entry-level training would only come about as the result of stiffening the testing requirements of the commercial drivers licence. That’s no surprise, but consider the implications. If a driving school offers only sufficient training to get the student through the ministry test, making the test harder will demand more training and education. That will only drive the cost to the student up, and the number of willing candidates down.

As it stands, someone who is between careers is likely on a limited budget and can ill-afford to be unemployed for any longer than necessary, never mind doubling the cost of the training on top of that. No one has yet been able to quantify whether a student is better served by 6-, 8-, or 12-week training program. All three currently operate in Canada, yet graduates of all three programs report varying degrees of success in being hired.

Rather than attempting to increase the entry-level requirements, trucking operations should be investing in developing the talent they pluck out of the driving schools. Like the farm system in professional sports, driving schools are a training ground. The company is the team, and the one who invests wisely in its recruits, and has the most to offer, will win.

If it costs too much to pay a senior driver to coach and develop the junior talent, maybe there’s something wrong with the system. In one of the better driver-development programs operating in Canada right now, a coach or mentor is paid $100 per week on top of his or her normal mileage rate, over six weeks. That’s $600 to pass on the skill and perspective accumulated over a 20-year career. You can’t even process the paperwork on an accident for $600 these days. Is it any wonder that few senior drivers are interested in forfeiting their lifestyle to take on an apprentice?

At the end of the day, there’s a lot more to be gained by retaining existing drivers than hiring a never-ending stream of new and short-lived drivers, but that would require a paradigm shift in the way the industry does business.

There are plenty of men and women who would make fine truck drivers if the industry weren’t so insistent that the employee fit the job. And when it comes to recruitment, if the package was more attractive, we would have less difficulty finding people willing to give the industry a try.

With a bit of imagination, the trucking industry could be a wonderful place to build a career. Sadly though, if recruiting budgets were any indicator, it would appear that money is in greater supply than vision.

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Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and Trucknews.com, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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