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Beyond the Wheel

by Jim Park

So, what do you want to be when you grow up? As a kid, you must have been asked that question hundreds of times. Chances are, you didn't have an answer then, and you probably still don't.

It's estimated that an individual today could change careers up to seven times in the course of their working lives. That's seven different careers, which is not the same as doing the same job for seven different employers. We're dealing with a different economic reality today than was the case 25 or more years ago, when our parents commonly held the same job from the time they left school until they retired. That's not the case any more.

Today's economy is demanding a lot more from its workforce than ever before: more time on the job, more responsibility, more flexibility, and more commitment. But for some reason, more and more employees are reporting less satisfaction from the work they do. That can translate into lower self-esteem and a growing feeling of being trapped if they sense they can't keep up with the pace of change.

Drivers can fall into this rut as well. In fact, drivers can have a particularly difficult time seeing out beyond the steering wheel. It's not that they're incapable of making a change, but the obstacles can seem overwhelming.

How do you go from the cab to the office? Where do you start? What do you need to know? What qualifications are necessary? How do you learn the new job? These are questions that every driver who switched gears mid-stream has asked.

Mike Smith, an ex-owner-operator who once had his own authority, says he's often thought of coming in off the road and taking a postion somewhere else within the organization. Smith recently moved from St. Catharines, Ont., to Vancouver, which is when the potential of a career change became the most likely.

"I was making a fresh start with the move, so I actively considered making a change at that point in time," Smith says. "By the time I got my feet on the ground here in Vancouver, I realized that trucking was different out here. I realized that I had to re-learn most of what I thought I knew."

For Smith, the reasons for wanting a bit of a change stem from the constant stress of the job. Driving is a terribly demanding job, especially on the Lower Mainland. Lots of traffic and too few roads, he notes. "And now I'm starting to wonder how much longer I can maintain the intellectual and emotional energy to deal with all that, 60 hours a week, 48 weeks a year."

There's no denying that the constant stress can take its toll.

For others, it's a matter of looking for ladders to climb. Kriska Transportation of Prescott, Ont., is blessed with just such a fellow. He's the director of safety and compliance for the company's Mississauga terminal, one of those guys who's been there and done that. In fact, he was probably one of the first to get the t-shirt.

Ed Wesselius started driving in 1963. He'd been just about everywhere you could find asphalt, and many-a-place that didn't. Curious about the career potential, he ventured into the office for the first time in the mid-1980s as a dispatcher. That soon became an impromptu driver trainer position when Kriska needed somebody to evaluate the drivers they were hiring, and he was the guy with the experience. Bear in mind that this was back in the days before safety and compliance managers were as common as they are today. Wesselius was among the first of the breed.

By his own admission, he's a chronic reader. He reads trade magazines, technical manuals, anything he can get his hands on, including the advertisements in trucking magazines. His insatiatable curiosity eventually became a career qualification.

"I knew there was something I could use in most of that stuff," he says. "The more I read, the more I wanted to know more."

When you talk to people like Mike and Ed, you notice certain similarities. Mostly, they're looking for something more than they've currently got on their plate. They had the urge to try something new and challenging, and they believed they could do it.

A Leap of Faith?

It's easier to make the switch to a different type of career if you can bring some of the skills from the old job with you, like a driver becoming a dispatcher, for example. It's easy to see where the two jobs would cross over, and where the skills accumulated over the course of a driving career could be put to good use in dispatch. That's called life experience. But what about on-the-job experience?

Jerry Rade used to drive. He's worked both sides of the track, as company driver and owner-operator. Presently, he's a training specialist with the City of Kitchener, Ont. He began his second career as a driver trainer/evaluator while working for a tank carrier in Mississauga.

There was nothing formal about the arrangement, he recalls. He was asked one day to take a driver around the block, as it were, to evaluate him. The next thing he knew, he'd become an amateur driver trainer with the company - amateur in the sense that he wasn't being paid any extra for passing on his considerable insight.

It wasn't long before Rade found himself an opening at the Ontario Safety League, which is a training and information center in Toronto dedicated to teaching instructors and conducting training programs for automotive and industrial applications. He signed up for their Fleet Driver Trainer program in the mid-1990s and eventually went back to the OSL as an air-brake instructor.

According to Rade, the first step in moving into any kind of training position is to forget everything you think you know, then go out and re-learn it properly.

"it's a big hurdle to get over realizing that you really don't know as much as you think you do," he says. "But that's the first step in beginning to learn something new."

One of the problems that drivers with other career plans face today is the tightening of the market. The industry is demanding more of trainers and instructors, and mostly, companies are looking for some kind of credentials or qualifications before they'll hire. And like the new drivers in the game today, the big question you're faced with is where to get the experience if nobody will hire you.

There are courses available at a precious few community colleges that pertain to transportation. There are other courses that you can take, such as human relations or management courses. You might want to upgrade or learn new computer skills, and there are public speaking courses that'll prepare you to speak at a safety meeting. There are all sorts of programs that, if you read between the lines, you'd find some way to apply to an inside job in trucking.

The obvious difficulty here is getting to the courses. As we mentioned earlier, truckers can have a real difficult time making the change. Just getting home to attend a course can be a logistics miracle, so ask around for any available program that might be offered on-line or as a correspondence program.

The other avenue is to make your intentions known to your supervisor. Ask to borrow training videos on the weekends or bring the training manuals out in the truck for a week and do some serious reading. Once the boss knows that you're interested, the door might start opening. You might have to start knocking, but at least you'll have one thing going for you that the next person might not: several years of real-world experience.

Real World Reality

It's no surprise to most observers that the workforce in this industry is in a precarious position. Statistics Canada estimates that 13% of Canadian truck drivers are over 55 years old and only 5% of the current driving force is under 25 - the highest and lowest figures respectively for any occupation in Canada. Any industry needs an adequate supply of personnel to function. Any industry needs people of varying ages to step into positions that the older workers vacate as they retire or move up the ladder. Trucking is somewhat unique in that it doesn't really offer any upward mobility from the driver's seat.

The real risk trucking faces is losing seasoned drivers to the lack of career opportunities, but it can ill afford to see these people walking away. This presents older drivers with an opportunity in creating their own career paths. And although the openings may be few and far between today, with the pressure the regulators are putting on trucking in terms of compliance and performance, roles in the training and development of younger drivers are going to become more numerous.

There's clearly a problem when drivers reach their maximum salary rate after just two and a half years, on average. The negative implications for the senior driver are obvious, and it certainly diminishes their sense of value to the company. One way of restoring that value and enthusiasm is to take on another challenge.

So if you're one of those seasoned drivers, perhaps feeling a little disenchanted with your career options, watch these pages over the next few months. We'll bring you some real-world success stories about people who really aren't much different from you after all. They took that leap and landed in positions such as safety and training, dispatch, sales, operations, and even into the shop. There are satisfying and challenging opportunities in trucking beyond where you are today. Next month, we'll begin examining what it takes to equip yourself for that journey.

"I've been out here for 20 years now, and I'm feeling that I'd like to pass along the skills I've developed over the years," says Vancouver's Mike Smith. "It would be nice to have some influence beyond my immediate sphere, somewhere beyond the hood of this truck. It would be gratifying to know that my skills helped someone else become a better driver."

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