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School Daze

by Jim Park

By the look of things, choosing a career as a truck driver would appear to be a pretty sound choice. The demand for qualified truck drivers in Canada has never been higher than it currently is, and that demand is expected to grow considerably over at least the next decade. In fact, David Bradley, chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance has called the current driver shortage the "most serious challenge facing the trucking industry today."

Statistics Canada indicates that trucking employs over 225,000 people between the ages of 25 and 40, making trucking the single largest employer, by sector, in the entire country. Only about two percent of that number are women. Interestingly, a large percentage of the total number of drivers are in the 40 to 50 age group, making trucking extremely vulnerable to premature career-limiting injuries and imminent retirement. In short, trucking is dangerously close to a crisis in manpower supply.

While many older drivers approach retirement age, the influx of potential new drivers is drying to barely a trickle. And this has many industry insiders terribly concerned. There are simply far more career options available today than there were to previous generations, and many of those options include high-paying technical trades such as electronics and skilled trades like machinists. While other career opportunities entice the high school graduate away from traditional "blue collar" careers by offering attractive pay packages and excellent working conditions, trucking continues to struggle with its reputation as a dirty, back-breaking, low-paying career of last resort --which couldn't be further from the truth.

What Happened?

A quantum shift in industry's approach to inventory control and traffic management has placed an increasing demand on the trucking industry to provide timely delivery and value-added services such as logistics management and even dedicated facilities to streamline the manufacturing process. Some trucking companies even provide mid-stream assembly of certain components. And because trucking has successfully risen to the challenge, it now faces the peculiar dilemma of being unable to keep up with the demand for service that the excellent service created in the first place.

This kind of service is in constant demand, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for trucking companies to staff their trucks with qualified personnel. In short, we've refined our ability to serve the client almost beyond our ability to provide the service.

At least part of the problem of meeting the demand can be laid at the feet of the shortage of qualified drivers. Carriers are looking for drivers, but they tend to be fairly choosy about who they hire. And this creates a dilemma for the person who believes a career in trucking might be just the ticket. How to go about procuring the training necessary to meet the increasingly stringent entry-level qualifications that carriers are demanding?

Where do the Drivers come From?

Traditionally, drivers seemed to come from sources such as the farm or the military. Twenty years ago, a driver might have been an ex-factory worker, or practically anyone with a bit of mechanical aptitude and a strong work ethic. In days gone by, the qualifications to become a truck driver were much less stringent than they are today, consequently, many people who had no other trade drifted into trucking as a career option, then stayed because the money was good and the working conditions were pleasant. Still, many people were attracted to a career in trucking because of the travel or the relatively unregulated work environment. In short, trucking was a fun job. You worked hard, but the potential to earn a good living was there, and those who worked hard prospered. But things have changed considerably over the past 20 years.

Typically, an entry-level driver in the 70's would start working on a straight truck. That was in the days before the commercial driver's license existed, and anybody who wanted a chauffeurs permit merely had to take their driving test on a vehicle equipped with a manual transmission. Consequently, a good supply of drivers existed and the training process consisted basically of spending a few years working around the city, or doing some shunting in a carrier's yard, and making as few mistakes as possible. After a few years, a driver could "graduate" onto a tractor-trailer, and the career path was underway.

Today, however, many older drivers are looking for those city jobs in order to lessen their workload and to spend more time at home. Consequently, the "entry-level straight-truck jobs" aren't available to the rookies. Today's rookie is looking at coming out of school and climbing right behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer. This, as you can imagine, places a great deal of pressure on the entry-level driver, as well as the carrier who is willing to hire that driver.

Training is No Substitute for Experience

Here's the big catch-22. Carriers are desperate for qualified drivers, yet many new graduates are having difficulty finding work. The carriers want experienced drivers, but all the experienced drivers are already working. The carriers are reluctant to hire the recent driving school graduate because they have little or no experience. So how do you get experience if nobody will hire you? This, in my opinion, is where the industry needs a big kick in the pants. Too many carriers are unwilling to make the investment in finishing the training the driving schools have begun. It's like a professional sports franchise: You can't develop a major league team if you don't have a farm team where you can grow and develop the talent who will eventually become the first stringers.

And unfortunately, some members of that pool of entry level talent are partially responsible for the carrier's reluctance to invest in the necessary "post-graduate" studies. Ken Ellacott, a recruiter with Cambridge, Ont.-based Challenger Motor Freight, suggested that many prospective new drivers don't seem willing to remain loyal to a carrier who has spent upwards of $5000 to round out the new-hire's driving school education. "Few new drivers, even the ones who have attended the better schools, are ready for the open road immediately after they graduate," he said. "We (at Challenger) have instituted an eight-week in-house training program that includes classroom instruction as well as on-road training for these people. That training builds on what they learned in school, and ultimately makes them employable drivers."

Challenger's dilemma, as is the case with other carriers who've decided to go the extra mile in developing the talent pool, is that it's terribly expensive to train a driver, then have him quit once he has acquired the secondary training. Ellacott and several of his counterparts at other carriers say they wish the new hires would maintain a sense of loyalty to the carrier for having made the investment, for at least long enough to recoup the training costs.

Joe Richard, a recruiter with Ayr Motor Express in New Brunswick, said that after a year, he's lucky if two out of ten original recruits are still with the company, despite a training program designed to give drivers the experience they need to compete in the job market. "It takes about a year to turn a newly-trained driver into a safe and productive driver," Richard said. "It really hurts to loose them any sooner than that."

But it's not that Ayr or Challenger are particularly unpleasant places to work, sometimes it's the rigors of the job that the new driver isn't entirely prepared for. Rigors that make it impossible to continue working for the company.

The Numbers Game

Driving schools are in business to make a profit. And I must stress here, that not all schools are created equally. It stands to reason that some schools are going to place profits ahead of the product, while others take a genuine interest in the long-term success of their graduates. Some schools will gladly take the students money, even if that student shows next to no aptitude for the career. Others screen their students carefully and won't admit a prospective student unless they feel that the student has a better than even chance of succeeding.

To an individual seeking a good-paying job in an interesting work environment, trucking's lure of the open, unsupervised road, along with earning potential in the $40,000 to $60,000 range must seem very enticing. But if the pitfalls of the career aren't explained adequately, right from the outset, the job can turn ugly in a big hurry.

In all likely hood, the newly-hired drivers will soon be faced with two to four week periods away from home and family, demanding schedules, 70- to 80-hour work weeks, loading and unloading freight by hand, layovers, strange and dangerous places like New York City and a host of other challenges that they might not have expected. Who can blame them for bailing if they thought the Class 1 license meant 44 hours a week, home every night and a classic chrome-mobile in which to while away the hours? The reality, sadly, isn't always what it seems.

But regardless of where the mistaken impressions may have come from, it's often ultimately the more progressive carriers who pay the price of the driver's voyage of discovery. To put it bluntly, the prospective new driver needs to examine, really carefully, what he's about to get into. That same driver also needs to understand that the earning potential just described will take several years to manifest itself. Nobody starts at $40,000 per year. More realistically, the earnings for the average entry-level driver will be closer to $30,000 per year. I know, that's not what the brochure said, but that's the reality of the situation.

Operational Realities

The trucking industry needs drivers, qualified drivers. You think trucking could be your cup of tea, so you spend about $3000 to $4000 on your education, then suddenly you find that this business really isn't what its cracked up to be. Or, you spend the money, get your training then you find that nobody will hire you. What gives? In order to resolve this revolving door of disappointment, the potential driver has to be willing to accept that this career, like any other, has a learning curve that takes a few years to climb. At the same time, more carriers have got to begin investing in the talent pool. Once we cross that bridge, both parties will begin to see a better return on their investment.

One unpleasant alternative to all this is the unscrupulous carrier who'll hire just about anybody. These guys turn their new drivers loose with $1/4 million worth of equipment, then demand that the new driver return the favor of being hired by doing the carrier's bidding, regardless of whether or not the demands are reasonable or legal.

This happens all too frequently, and the unfortunate upshot is that by the time the driver has earned the prerequisite year of experience, his reputation is ruined, he's got a record as long as his arm, and the legitimate carriers won't touch him with a 10-ft. pole.

As you can see, the career development process in trucking is a delicate balance of trust, demand and reasonable return. Watch this site over the next two weeks, and we'll offer some valuable insights into choosing a driving school that will lead to some legitimate employment opportunities.

Part 2 Of This Story

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