Life and Family

Doing Your Job


Freight Focus: Pickup & Delivery

by Jim Park

In days gone by, the city was the training ground for big-rig wannabes. And there are many who think that a return to that system of steady progression from small truck to big one would make sense. We wouldn't argue.

Some long-haul drivers would choose it if they could, but many others would miss the glory of the open road. And they might not like the pace.

So what's the P&D world really like?

Loading and unloading, of course, go with the territory. A pickup-and-delivery driver who doesn't want to unload his own truck just won't cut it. And then there's traffic congestion, road rage, pallet exchange, shippers, receivers, and a host of other elements that would tend to make the typical highway driver a bit crazy. The city and the highway are different jobs entirely.

A Day in the Life

Dan O'Callaghan knows the difference, and he likes the view from the cab of his Mack Midliner. He has the best of both worlds. He works for TCT Logistics in Winnipeg, a full-service truckload and LTL carrier that occasionally gives him a weekend trip to Calgary or Edmonton.

"That's usually enough to satisfy the need to stretch my legs," he says.

He's been rattling around Winnipeg for the past nine years. His day starts around 7:00 a.m. when the dock foreman hands him his manifest for the first run. The truck is usually loaded by the night-shift dock crew. "They're pretty good at putting everything on in order, but sometimes we'll need a pallet jack to move stuff around," Callaghan says. "There's a lot of planning involved to minimize our travel time."

On a busy day, he may have as many as three loads, but typically, once he's out the gate, he's out for the day - deliveries in the morning and pickups in the afternoon. O'Callaghan's route is different every day, from residential calls to all day in the downtown core, but even after nine years he still hasn't got enough seniority to command a regular run. A seniority list is common for P&D drivers, even if they aren't unionized, so the last guy in gets the unpopular shifts. A regular run includes the same steady customers every day, with fairly predictable freight volume.

Keeping the Pace

Routing isn't always seniority-based. Many companies assign drivers a territory, if not a steady route. Like Vancouver-based Argus Carriers, a 59-vehicle small package and LTL operation serving the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, using anything from a panel van to a tractor-trailer.

Argus sales manager Red Spiess says the advantage to having dedicated areas is that drivers get to know the customers and the lay of the land. "It's also an accident-prevention strategy," he says. "When you know where you're going, you're less likely to be paying more attention to your map than to the driving."

Argus has a woman on staff who does little more than make and reschedule appointments all day long. If the first appointment of the day goes badly, it will ruin everything else in a hurry. There's a lot of pressure on the driver to make his appointments in the first place.

Spiess says the Overwaitea grocery chain in B.C. charges $170 for a missed appointment. The Zellers distribution center has been known to hit carriers for up to $500 in what they call non-compliance charges. But the granddaddy of them all is Toys "R" Us, which, according to one carrier, is charging up to $1000 for a late arrival. On the other hand, if the receiver delays the carrier, there's little more the carrier can do other than to bill the shipper, and hope he gets paid.

Consequently, many P&D operations run more trucks on the road today than they used to do. Part of the reason is volume, but a significant contributor to the extra demand for rolling stock is inflexible appointment times which reduce the chance of consolidating shipments.

"We've had occasions where several deliveries to the same destination were scheduled at different times, and the consignee has actually required the driver to go out and get back into line for his next delivery," says Brian Death, general manager of J.D. Smith and Sons of Toronto. "That doesn't do much for our ability to maximize efficiency."

Part of a Chain

Today's P&D driver has become an integral part of the supply management chain, with new responsibilities added.

"Traditionally, we've always had drivers breaking down skids and restacking freight, but today we're seeing drivers being asked to apply bar codes to the packages and participate directly in the consignee's logistics plan," says Death. "Downloading of the logistical function to the loading dock can slow the delivery process down considerably."

These additional responsibilities on the docks have generated an unfortunate spin-off: an increase in lost-time injuries for drivers. It prompted several provincial Worker's Compensation Boards to require truck drivers to be trained and certified in the operation of dock-related equipment such as forklift trucks.

With the driver's role expanding to include dock functions, receivers are beginning to take full advantage of the free labour. Death says his drivers are paid by the hour, but he bills his customers by the published tariff. So having a driver detained at the dock while unloading the truck costs time and money, and it may be scaring prospective drivers away.

"These people still see themselves as truck drivers, not dock workers," says Death.

Around the Clock

Overall, Death and Spiess both say they have little trouble attracting drivers, many of whom stay for 10 years or more. Each company also has drivers approaching 30-year anniversaries, who probably manage to avoid the increasingly common night and weekend work. The advantage of doing business at night is that two principal headaches, traffic and appointment times, don't come into conflict quite as often.

When O'Callaghan was working nights, he typically spent the time shunting trailers around to various customers, as well as making the odd after-hours delivery. Today, though, the appointment times go right around the clock, and that just adds to the demand for drivers.

A day's work for the P&D driver is a busy one, and not without its share of peril. O'Callaghan says it doesn't matter if you're in Winnipeg, Toronto or Vancouver, the car drivers are just as unsympathetic to his cause. "We often have to back in off busy streets, and with the traffic going by at 60 or 70 km/h, we've got to be pretty careful," he says. He also warns that the potential for injury is greater for the P&D driver because he's climbing on and off the truck all day.

The P&D job isn't for everybody. O'Callaghan says the hours are better, but the pay isn't as good because you're working less. And that's no small trade-off.

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