Are there, or are there not enough truck drivers in Canada? It’s a question that has been debated in this industry longer than deregulation and has attracted the sort of emotion presently only reserved for the issue of mandatory speed limiters.
As the first two parts of this series (see Related Stories links at the bottom of this page) on Canada’s labor crunch have detailed, the demographic landscape the industry is facing in the next 20 years means that, undoubtedly, the next-generation of Canadian drivers won’t exist in the numbers needed to fill the seats of retiring baby boomers. On the surface, a robust long-haul driver pool in the next two decades seems almost impossible without overseas recruiting strategies by carriers and an organized national immigration policy to support it. But what about today?
A newly released report by the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council (CTHRC) indicates that about half of 1,432 employers surveyed indicate that a lack of drivers has forced them to idle equipment in the previous six months. Another 42 percent noted that the shortage affects their ability to move freight.
According to the report, the new hire rate of 17.6 percent is not sufficient to replace all the job vacancies (24.5 percent) resulting from drivers exiting the industry.
Most of that isn’t earth-shattering, of course: “The demands placed on drivers have increased, as carriers respond to economic pressures and a new emphasis on safe operations … As a consequence, there is a shortage of drivers with the qualifications for and the interest in the most demanding segments of the industry.”
Sound familiar? Those words are 17 years old — written in 1990 by Price Waterhouse on behalf of the Steering Committee of the Canadian Trucking Industry, Employment and Immigration Canada — the precursor of CTHRC. We’re come so far, haven’t we?
So, it’s been a given for a while that most for-hire carriers say they can’t find drivers for their operations. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that surplus commercial licence holders don’t exist. CTHRC’s Canada’s Driving Force Phase 2 — a follow-up to its much-publicized driver shortage study in 2002 — does offer some details on the pool of individuals who seem to genuinely want to drive truck, but have somehow fallen through the cracks.
More than a third of individuals who’ve obtained their class 1/A license don’t ever migrate to the trucking industry as drivers, reports CTHRC. The majority (80.5 percent) of respondents stated they wanted to work in the trucking industry as either a driver (68.7 percent) or in another occupation in the sector (11.8 percent).
However, only 64 percent of respondents, less than two thirds, find their way into truck cabs as commercial drivers; and another 10 percent might leave the industry after a year. “There is, therefore, a considerable loss of potential drivers between licensing and employment in the industry,” notes the study. “The shortage of qualified drivers is not a ‘supply side’ issue, but rather a training-qualification issue.”
There are many reasons why those drivers aren’t working in trucking right now. Some are physically or legally barred, as they have some sort of medical impairment, drug dependency or criminal record that disqualifies them from many lanes — namely American ones.
Others aren’t proficient in English or haven’t been able to keep up with the technological literacy that the job demands these days. And more than a handful simply don’t have the work ethic to handle the job, whether they know it or not.
In the eyes of employers, though, the existing supply of available drivers are often not “qualified” to step in because of insufficient training or experience, notes the study. When asked, nearly two-thirds of new drivers also admitted they don’t possess the skills for a safe and productive career in trucking.
Even with a licence in hand, 63.5 percent of newly hired drivers feel they need additional training, whether it involves regulations (cited by 24.3 percent); backing, coupling and uncoupling (18.9 percent); shifting and transmission (12.2 percent); defensive driving (8.1 percent); or the essential skills of reading, writing and math (8.1 percent).
Who or what, in the end, is responsible for bridging this gap between unqualified prospects and professional employment isn’t something that the CTHRC survey directly addresses, except to say there is no “magic bullet” and a “one-size-fits-all strategy may not be sufficient.”
Less scrupulous driving schools — licence mills, as they’re commonly called — are obviously legitimate targets. “There are driver-training facilities out there that will take people’s money and help them get a class 1 license without ever looking at the driver’s abstract. Of course, the guy goes out looking for work with a nice new shiny licence and no quality carrier in his right mind would hand them the keys to a $150,000 truck,” says Andy Roberts, president and CEO of Mountain Transport Institute in B.C.
“They don’t get enough proper training, so they’re handicapped right off the bat. This is what’s frustrating for me. You have an individual who’s interested in our industry, but who’s severely limited.”
If such an individual does end up getting a seat, it’s usually with a carrier with “lower standards and lower pay,” says Roberts. Often, those drivers are forced into dangerous situations by shippers and their bosses. At the same time, there are additional pressures placed on drivers to perform according to ever tightening — and in some cases, near impossible –enforcement demands.
“Some guys will be resilient enough to put up with all that and build some experience to move up to a better [carrier]. But most get a bad taste in their mouth because they’re underpaid, asked to run more than one logbook, and operate unsafe equipment. So what do you think they do? They bolt out the door.”
Unless there’s outright fraud being committed, there’s not much authorities can do to close down substandard licence mills. Mandating a standard training criteria for schools and toughening up the provincial road test are a couple of ideas, although, as Roberts quips, “we’ll all be old and gray waiting for government to act.”
The onus, therefore, rests with carriers to help bring down the costs of the mills’ reputable training competitors, while doing a heck of a lot more to balance the work-life demands of both veterans and the ever-scarce new-generation driver.
Proven programs like CTHRC’s Earning Your Wheels, PTDI, or some of the more comprehensive private courses, aren’t cheap. You get what you pay for, but that’s the point. Many potential students can’t put food on the table while enrolled at a $12,000, 10-week program.
Despite the alarming number of carriers that report empty trucks parked by the fence, a significant proportion of carriers (30.2 percent ) provide either no training (17.1 percent) or limited training (13.1 percent). When training is provided, explains CTHRC, it tended to be more “passive,” such as general orientation to the company, rather than intensive mentoring and internship-related training.
This suggests, anecdotally anyway, that too many carriers are only interested in road-ready drivers showing up at their front door. Small and medium-sized carriers especially seem to be of the opinion that because they incur the risk of new drivers, they shouldn’t have to pony up for a training wage or subsidize the cost to “finish” some of those recent graduates in desperate need of more training.
The problem with that attitude, though, is there are many other industries — far less laborious and higher paying than trucking — that are paying people to learn. “If you look at ownership, there’s still a lot of older guys stuck on ‘well, this is how we did it, so this is how it should be done,'” says Roberts. “They may not necessarily be the most progressive people in the world.”
CTHRC’s Roy Craigen, who’s also president of safety and training consulting firm Transcom in Edmonton, says that reaching the “underemployed” is the industry’s best short-term strategy.
“We can’t compete against electricians in Fort McMurray, what if [carriers] went to Tim Hortons and offered to buy the person behind the counter a coffee for a change? What if we convinced them to trade their $20,000-a-year job for a $60,000-a year career?”
Sound too idealistic? MTI’s Roberts doesn’t think so. “There are thousands of people who have a wife and a couple kids working at Canadian Tire, and have demonstrated an ability to work every day and work hard, but they can’t afford courses like mine. There’s no funding mechanism for them. Let’s figure out a way to get that person trained.”
Roy Nichols, former HR professional and co-owner of Commercial Safety College in Truro, N.S., thinks trucking associations and sector agencies like CTHRC would be better served if they put more resources into lobbying for reform of government employment assistance programs like Service Canada, which oversees EI, education and training for the unemployed.
The problem with the system, according to Nichols, is applicants cannot hold a job while qualifying for skilled trades training funding. “So, there’s some under-skilled poor bugger who’s working part-time at Tim Hortons and part-time at the grocery store because his pride won’t allow him to go on a social service program. Well, he’s being discriminated against because he wants to work,” Nichols explains passionately.
“Has anyone looked at this guy, who’s demonstrated a clear work ethic, if he’s interested in learning a skill? No, because the only way he can be eligible [for funding] through Service Canada is if he quit his job.” Despite the dwindling demographic picture, Nichols believes there will always be a small pool of potential drivers who have personalities that lend themselves, perhaps with a little encouragement, to trucking.
“Those who like it, like it a lot,” he says, mimicking the ads of that famous Maritime beer.
But is the industry still at all likable — especially to the new generation?
To understand why today’s young people may not be interested in trucking, one must understand young people’s worldview. These people are no longer former soldiers or farmers. They’re addicted to fast-paced, adventurous, technology-dependent lifestyles. And quite frankly, the easier the lifestyle and the more downtime there is to consume goods, the better. For those that do inquire about trucking, it’s likely a “next career choice.” But so be it.
The industry, historically, has wasted a lot of time and money searching for square pegs in a box full of round ones. So perhaps the time has come to change the shape of the hole instead of, as Roberts comments, “using really big hammers to try and get the pegs to fit.”
Most fleet managers may not like it, but as far as that new recruit with the pierced lip is concerned, he has the buying power and if he plays, he wants to play the game his way.
So what does he want? Well, to be paid for absolutely everything he does while on the clock, for starters. This driver is smarter, in a streetwise sense, than the older truckers, so he’s not going to do anything for free.
Discrepancies between mileage paid and mileage run are small but highly irritating. Pay packages that people can understand easily would help too. Also, when rates are the same across the board, regardless of experience or seniority, it gives junior drivers little to work toward.
But, no different than the veteran driver battling battered knees and little sleep, it’s home time that this new driver values most. Whether it’s to spend at home with the new wife and young kids or to go to Banff for a weekend snowboarding with friends, this is the sort of work-life balance carriers will have to manage better in the coming years by getting creative with their operations and routing — even if it involves tough decisions, like running less miles.
“A lot of companies want to run their truck 24 hours. So they look for two drivers to run 12 hours,” says Roberts. “One log hauler I talked to in northern Alberta recently told me ‘no, now you need three drivers to work eight hours.’ Good or bad, it’s just different today. I think we’re all hung up on that model of two guys running 12 hours a day.”
Ideally, the trucking industry would take its cue from other apprenticed trades, or — as our own contributing writer and highwaySTAR editor Jim Park envisions — an NHL hockey team. The industry, he explains, should be investing a little of its own money in developing the talent they pluck out of driving schools.
“Like the farm system in professional sports, the driving schools are a training ground. The company is the team, and the one who invests most wisely in its recruits will win.”
Sure, it sounds all warm and fuzzy. But like any small Canadian hockey team struggling to compete for free-agent talent against more glamorous, high-paying markets is fully aware, you better invest and nurture from within if you stand any chance of getting into the playoffs.
— with files from Jim Park
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