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Paving the Way

by Jim Park

It's sometimes said that those who can't do, teach. While that may be an oversimplification, not all teachers possess the skills that they're passing along to their students. In many cases, it's just not necessary. When you're teaching or evaluating the skills required to drive trucks, however, experience really helps. Experience is usually the best teacher. And the best teachers are usually experienced.

There's a wealth of experience out there in our senior drivers, but for a number of different reasons, that pool is drying up. The older folk are nearing retirement age, they're leaving the industry in search of friendlier pastures or, worst of all, they're not being encouraged to pass along the tools of the trade. There's a wealth of information, and more important but less tangible stuff as well under those manes of greying hair. The youth of trucking desperately need that knowledge. The industry desperately needs trainers and mentors to help bring these new drivers up to speed.

Learning to drive was less of a challenge a generation ago. There was less traffic on the roads, we worked in a less demanding environment, and shippers were more tolerant of service failures. In fact, I don't think the term 'service failure' existed 20 years ago. In short, anyone who began a trucking career in the years before Ronald Regan became president, had the luxury of being able to learn the trade at a more comfortable pace.

The industry today hasn't the time or the money to allow students to "learn by their mistakes." They're expected to perform at near expert levels from day one, and that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the new driver.

What they really need is a coach or mentor to walk them through situations they won't be given the latitude to stumble through on their first job.

When we talk about learning to drive, we're not referring only to steering and gearing the truck. The skills most rookies lack are judgment and the ability to recognize a bad situation as it's developing. That's where our seasoned citizens come in.

How's this for a little gem: a superior driver is one who uses superior judgment to avoid situations that might require the application of some superior skill.

That's why we need experienced veterans to act as mentors.

Randy Barbrick, 22, of Shubenacadie, N.S., just earned his licence. He attended the 12-week program at Commercial Safety College in Masstown, N.S., part of which is 100 hours of on-the-job-training with an experienced coach or mentor. Barbrick studied under Cecil Mackie (see our profile on Cecil, p. 14), whom he claims was an absolute Godsend.

"I got pretty flustered the first time I went into Montreal," says Barbrick. "If not for Cecil's patience and guidance, I might have left the truck on the side of the road and walked home."

Barbrick said that Mackie described how different cities tend to have different driving styles. He warned Barbrick about the legendary indifference of Montreal drivers and cautioned him that the lanes on the freeway across the north side of the city are narrower than usual. These are all aspects of the job that no school could have prepared him for. Yet, with Mackie in the seat beside him, all Barbrick had to do was ask.

Mackie was there with advice when it was asked for and a pat on the back when it was called for. His job was not to lecture, chastise or try to re-teach the student. Mackie's job as driver trainer, or coach as they're known in the program, is to help the student put into practice what he's already learned in school.

It sounds like a very satisfying pursuit, but if you think it's easy, think again.

Frank Henderson, president and general manager of Commercial Safety College, thinks the trainer plays a vital role in his program. They're the bridge between the school and the real world, he explains. "The coach's role isn't so much to teach the student, but to guide them through real-world situations that cannot be simulated during the course, such as crossing a real border or securing a load of unusually shaped cargo and much more."

The coach is also required to evaluate the progress of the student during the time they're together. That means there's a bit more to this job than sitting there barking instructions.

Commercial Safety College puts the coaches through a two-day program covering the essentials of being a successful driver trainer. They deal with some of the principals of adult learning, student motivation and how to sequence the tasks so that the students don't get in over their head too soon. In contrast, the College's full driver instructor program can take anywhere from six months to a year to complete.

The driver trainer position is really just the first step on the way to an instructor's position.

Kim Richardson, president of KRTS Inc. in Caledonia, Ont., says only about one driver in 10 has all the necessary attributes to become a good driver trainer. There's a big difference, he notes, in showing a student how to do something, and ensuring they've learned what they've been taught.

"To climb into a truck to coach someone else who has never driven a truck takes a unique individual," Richardson says. "We really need a broader skill set than just 10 years of experience. We're looking for communications skills, people skills and a professional outlook on the job they're doing. The wrong type of person playing the role of instructor can ruin a student in a hurry."

Similar Opportunities

The types of jobs we've described above take driver training to the next level. Chances are, your first kick at the cat may come in being asked to take a driver new to the fleet out on an orientation mission, or in the case of specialty work like tankers, to teach them how to handle the equipment. It can be a highly satisfying opportunity to teach someone a new skill, but there's quite a bit of responsibility that comes with the territory.

First, you'll need to be absolutely sure you're teaching the proper techniques and procedures. As the company trainer, even if it's not an official title, you could be held accountable if something goes wrong somewhere down the road.

This type of informal approach is where many fleets go wrong. They might inadvertently allow the "trainer" to pass along the bad habits with the good. And if the trainer isn't able to recognize how a student is progressing, critical items might be omitted or skipped over in the assumption that the student is actually catching on.

Prospective driver trainers should ask for some formal training in how to teach, as well as insuring that they have all the skills required by the task being taught and that they're well understood and practised often. This is likely where the adage we used at the beginning of the story comes from.

Brian Hornibrook is a driver trainer with Challenger Motor Freight in Cambridge, Ont., with a decade of over-the-road experience under his own belt-much of that at earned at Challenger. Still, he found that he had to go back and relearn a lot of what he had previously taken pretty much for granted. He's the front-line trainer at Challenger. He conducts the pre-hire evaluations and then conducts the orientation sessions for the new drivers.

"We cover a lot here in orientation: dangerous goods, hours of service, U.S. regulations and the like," he says. "And because Challenger is a multi-discipline carrier, I need to cover cargo securement on a number of different types of cargo."

As well, Hornibrook deals with the company policies and procedures and the operational necessities every driver needs to be familiar with. His task is a little different from the coach or on-the-road driver trainer, but the qualifications for the job aren't. Except in Hornibrook's case, he's got to work standing at the front of a room full of new-hires.

He calls it performing the ritual. "I really am a performer at the end of the day," he admits. "But the performance has to be good, otherwise I'll lose the interest of the students."

Take the Leap

In Cecil Mackie's case, he's out for a couple of weeks with a student, then he runs for a couple of weeks alone on regular runs just to break up the stress of the job. Most fleets manage it that way. Taking a different new driver into the truck every week would be too hard on the system. And it's important to remember that new drivers are just that: new drivers. They're there to learn, or to hone their new skills. They shouldn't be seen as a second logbook, or a ticket to a fatter pay cheque.

"Fleets that insist on running their training duos as high-output teams are placing too much pressure on the new drivers," says Barbrick. "I came out here to learn, and that's what I did in a comfortable and safe working environment."

If driver training sounds interesting to you, ask your fleet supervisor about the opportunity. Ask for the proper training as well. It's a small investment that'll pay off big, in three ways: for you, the fleet and the student.

If nothing else, the prospective driver trainer is probably going to become a better driver in the process, too. Besides, learning a new skill, namely how to teach, it adds another skill set to your own portfolio.

To Hornibrook's way of thinking, "You can't help but learn when you're in a teaching environment."

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