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Beyond the Wheel, Part III

by Jim Park

In our quest to broaden your horizons, this month we're looking at making the transition from driver to dispatcher.

Many drivers have made the switch quite successfully but they're often accused, behind their backs, of leaving their past at the door when they assume their new position. The reason for that, according to Larry Dyck, owner and president of Winnipeg-based tank carrier Jade Transport, is that some drivers don't always see the bigger picture.

"Drivers aren't always privy to the whole scenario," he says. "And it isn't always obvious over the telephone why certain decisions are made."

Next time you're hanging around waiting on one of those call-me-back-in-five-minutes deals and fancying yourself in the dispatcher's chair moving that poor driver right back out on the road again, consider this: there's more in the dispatcher's job description than just throwing darts at the map and issuing the driver new marching orders.

It's the dispatcher's job to move freight. He does that by assigning trucks and drivers to the job, but there's a complex set of demands that needs to be met first. The move has to be done at minimal cost, it has to be done according to a schedule, there has to be trucks and drivers available with hours left to complete the trip, and the equipment on the road has to meet the customer's needs.

It's like putting a puzzle together. There's a truck in Winnipeg; there's a load in Winnipeg, too, except it's bound for Calgary and the driver wants to head home to Halifax. There'll be a Calgary-based driver in Winnipeg tomorrow, but she's not scheduled to unload until late in the afternoon.

Interested in the dispatcher's job? Here's a few of the skills and attributes you'll need to succeed:
  • Communications skills: conveying information to drivers and customers demands clear, concise language. It's easy to make a costly mistake using the wrong words.
  • Conflict resolution and problem solving skills: dispatchers aren't supposed to create problems. Their job is to solve them. On-your-feet-thinking is a prerequisite.
  • Computer skills and technological literacy: not mandatory off the bat, but you'll have to come up to speed pretty quickly. These things can be easily learned.
  • Better than working knowledge of logistics management and DOT regulations: functionality and compliance is everything today. These skills are easily learned.
  • Human relations skills and employment law: praise and discipline are all part of the job. You'll need to know how to handle people, and how to do it properly.
  • Sales, records and systems management: depending on the size of the carrier, you may be responsible for all these functions. Organizational skills are mandatory.
The pieces eventually start coming together. It turns out that the Calgary driver will be arriving in Winnipeg a day early. The Halifax driver is available to make the pickup in Winnipeg and doesn't mind switching and waiting a day to unload the inbound freight. He's nearly out of hours anyway. And there's a load in Fort Francis, Ont., bound for Montreal, with another load scheduled to leave there for Halifax the following morning. Click. Click. Click.

It's the dispatcher's job to bring all the isolated elements together, making something constructive and profitable happen.

According to Stuart Pound, vice-president of operations at Larway Transport near Barrie, Ont., communications skills and an understanding of the driver's tasks are two of the greatest assets a dispatcher can bring to the job.

"The human element can never be overstated in dispatch," he notes. "Even with all the electronics we use today, you're still dealing with human beings with sometimes conflicting agendas."

If you looked at a skill profile for a dispatcher, near the top of the list you'd likely find such talents as negotiating skills, conflict resolution, salesmanship, strategic thinking and computer literacy.

Tools of the Trade

The art of dispatching can be taught, although some would say that a dispatcher, like a good musician, either has it or he doesn't. Patrick Pagé has it. He manages 75 trucks and drivers operating in southwestern Ontario from an office in Boucherville, Que., for Transport Robert.

He started trucking in the Canadian Armed Forces, and was injured in Bosnia a few years ago. When he returned to civilian life, he continued trucking with Montreal LTL carrier Thorco Transport, making 20 or 25 drops in Chicago, then 15 or 20 pickups before heading back. When his wife became pregnant, he felt he needed to spend more time closer to home, so he decided to try his hand at dispatch. It was a big adjustment.

"After coming in off the road where I was my own boss and setting my own schedule, I had to try fitting in to everybody else's plans at work and around home. It was a challenge," Pagé acknowledges. "But that was only half the battle."

It took him a while to forget about the steering wheel. "I'd sit there in the chair and try to convince myself that I was doing the job properly, trying to convince myself that I was a dispatcher now, not a driver. Trying to deal with the self-doubt that I hadn't done the best I could on every load."

Pagé says he had enough computer skills to get by in the beginning, but learned more as he went along. He had experience with LTL freight as a driver, so he was certainly aware of those challenges, and he possessed the human relations skills needed to manage the drivers and office staff equally well.

"I guess I was better at the job than I thought I'd be," he says. "And when I came to Transport Robert, they really put those new skills to the test."

Pagé fared well while integrating into the new job because he had the attitude and the aptitude for it. He learned the rest as he went along.

And as you might imagine, there's a lot to learn before you can allow yourself the luxury of believing you're doing it right. There's a lot more to the job than dispatching trucks to pick up loads. Actually, that's the easy part.

Larway Transportation's Rob Neill sees himself as a problem solver first, and a negotiator and salesman as well, all at the same time. Like his counterpart at Transport Robert, Neill came to the job right off the road.

"I spoke the driver's language," Neill says. "And I knew the routine. But that's about all I had going for me at the time."

He had just come in off the road, and his boss had just begun grooming him for the dispatch position. He had learned the basics, and had just started booking freight and maintaining the accounts when the existing dispatcher gave his two weeks notice. Then he left a week early, leaving Neill in charge.

He simply took the reins and kept the horse on the path. Leadership skills, road smarts, and the willingness to recognize that he wasn't the most important element in the equation did the rest.

The Dispatcher's Brain

We promised we'd keep the jokes to a minimum, but here's one worth telling:

A fellow needed a brain transplant. The doctor explained that while the procedure was easy enough to do, the patient would have to pay for the new brain himself.

"No problem, Doc," he said. "What are we looking at?"

The doctor opened a catalog and began flipping pages. "Here's a golf pro's brain; $25,000. We've got a PhD's brain here, mastered in mathematics and astrophysics; $50,000 for that one, and here's an ex-dispatcher's brain; $250,000."

"Why so much for the dispatcher's brain?" asked the patient.

"Because it's just like new," said the doctor. "It's never been used."

Neill figures that any experienced driver has already gained much of what's needed to become a successful dispatcher through his time on the road. He knows what it takes to do the job, where the truckstops are, and how long it takes to get there.

"The rest of the program - the electronics, satellite communications and using the computers to scan for loads - are all learnable skills," Neill figures.

It's not an impossible leap, from the cab to dispatch, but it does take a certain individual to make it work well.

Bill Bishop of Kim Richardson Training Specialists manages a skills and aptitude-testing program for dispatchers at the school in Caledonia, Ont. Students are put through the test before being admitted to the program.

"We're testing to see how well suited a candidate is for the job," Bishop says. "Obviously, certain skills are required, but we're looking to see how well suited for the job they are. We're looking for their problem-solving and communications skills, as well as their knowledge of logistics and DOT regulations."

Bishop says that even the most highly qualified individual will never make a good dispatcher if he's unable to establish a good rapport with the drivers and the customers.

Attitude and Aptitude

So why would an ex-driver make a good dispatcher? In a business like Jade's, hauling bulk chemical products, some hands-on experience is really an asset. It helps with scheduling when a dispatcher knows from personal experience how long a customer takes to load or unload, or where the nearest tank wash is. It can't help but work to the carrier's advantage to have a dispatcher who's been there.

In fact, Dyck likes to send his dispatchers out on the occasional trip with a driver so that they can get the feel of the work, and learn from experience what the consequences of the wrong decision might be.

In the world Pagé came from, it helps when a dispatcher knows, first hand, that stopping to make a pickup, even a single skid, may still take over an hour. He's now working with Groupe Robert's B-train division, moving heavy loads between Ontario, Quebec and Michigan. There, a knowledge of weights and dimensions regulations is helpful, as well as some of the requirements of hauling steel.

Neill believes that computers and other electronic tools have helped the dispatcher immeasurably, both in terms of saving time on the job and freeing him up to deal with the drivers on a more personal level.

"They [drivers] are not a spoke in our system," he says. "They're the hubs. They need a little care and attention once in a while, which takes time. The electronics free us up to spend more time where it's needed most."

On the other hand, you might be blessed with all the mechanical skills in the world, but if you're just not a people person, then forget dispatch. Carriers are painfully aware of how difficult it is to attract and retain good drivers. The last thing they need is a lousy dispatcher driving them out the door as fast as the recruiters are bringing them in.

"When you're in the office, there's a whole bunch of people asking a whole bunch of questions and a whole bunch of favors," says Pagé. "You get it from all over the place, not just from one person: customer service, the boss, the dock, the drivers.

"It takes a while before you can sit in this chair and say to yourself, 'Okay. I'm a dispatcher now. I'm not a driver anymore.' It takes a while to forget about that steering wheel."

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