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Nerves of Steel, Heart of Gold

by Jim Park

Cecil Mackie has 29 years of working wisdom under his belt and he's not as young as he looks. Yet, he's still out there doing a really heroic job. He's one of only a handful of drivers, relatively speaking, who spend many an hour wondering if, or when, one of his student drivers might make a mistake and... well, kill the two of them.

Mackie is a driver trainer with Hillman's Transfer in North Sydney, Nova Scotia. He takes newly trained rookies, right out of driving school, and shares the secrets he's learned over two million-plus miles. Many of his protégés were only twinkles in their parents' eyes when Mackie was grinding his first gears. He's got more to tell his students than he could hope to pass on in a year, but he gets only 100 hours to make them into employable truck drivers.

Mackie would be the first to say he wasn't always an expert, because he had to have someone show him the ropes, too. He can recall having a really sore ankle by the time he was ready for the open road.

"The guy who taught me had a pretty big work boot," he recalls. "He'd show you once how it was done, and if I didn't pick it up real quick, he'd reach over and give me a little reminder."

Mackie started out on a shunt truck, learning how to wheel the thing around the yard before they turned him loose in the real world. That was a reasonable course of action 29 years ago. It's different today, with awful traffic, heavier loads, and tighter schedules. That's why his students gain so much from his three decades of real world experience, even if it's all compressed into a scant 100 hours.

He's been working with trainees for four years now: he counts 26 wins, a few ties, and only a couple of losses, but he's walked away from every one of them. Still, his very first student gave Mackie a few second thoughts on the matter.

"We were getting off Hwy. 20 at the 185 exit, where the Irving is near Drummondville, Que.," Mackie says. "When you first go into the turn, it's pretty sharp. I watched the back wheels came right up off the ground as we went around. He got 'er back down again, but there was nothing I could do."

If that's part of the excitement of being a driver trainer, Mackie says the hardest part is just letting them go. He says you have to give the student a little slack during the first few days, "just to see where they're at." Once he knows what he's up against, he tightens the reins and starts the teaching process.

Mackie especially likes climbing the big hill on Hwy 185, westbound out of Degelis, Que.

"That's usually the first big hill they ever see with me," he laughs. "That's where they learn the difference between the 20,000-lb training load and a 60,000-lb load of real paying freight. I've had to stop and crawl up that hill in first gear dozens of times."

The biggest part of this project is adjusting the teaching style to the student, Mackie says. Some take to the truck quite naturally; others don't. Some don't even complete the full 100 hours. Still, Mackie genuinely likes what he does. And he sure isn't doing it for the money. He's paid $600 per student, and at 100 hours per, that's just six bucks an hour extra on top of his mileage rate.

"Lot's of drivers think I'm crazy," he admits. "But I think the industry needs to take a real hard look at these programs. Guys like me are on our way out, right now, and nobody is doing much to keep us here."

He's referring of course to the value of the exercise. The kind of experience Mackie brings to the table is invaluable, but nobody seems to have the money to pay for it.

"These new drivers can't learn everything on their own without making a few mistakes in the process," he says. "In the end, even the shipper has a stake in how well these people are trained. After all, it's their load of groceries that might wind up in the woods one day."

While he's not talking retirement quite yet, suggesting he's got another 10 years left in him, he'd really like to see more interest and financial commitment to the type of program he's currently working in. Once guys like Cecil are gone, who'll be left to teach the younguns?

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