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School Daze, Pt.II

by Jim Park

Part 1 Of This Story

Choosing the right driving school to launch your career

Simply put, almost any driving school can teach somebody how to steer and gear a truck. That's the easy part. But to what standard is a school required to teach the student? Passing along just enough skill to get the student through the Ministry test may get him the license, but it probably won't get him a job.

The carriers, the folks who write the paycheques, want somebody with more than a fresh Class 1 license. If you've just paid some fly-by-night driving school big bucks for a license, and found that the carriers won't even talk to you, you've just wasted a ton of dough.

How then, does one go about choosing a school that offers a better than even chance of gaining employment at the end of the course? Research is the answer, along with an honest self-evaluation to insure that a career in trucking is what you really want.

Is Trucking for Me?

Trucking may look glamorous from the outside, but to somebody who lives a relatively "normal" life, adjusting to life after the Class 1 license can be pretty stressful. I mention this because not all driving schools explain all the dirty details ahead of time. It's easy to see why some wannabe truck drivers feel they've been taken advantage of when, having spent the money for the course, they realize that the job just isn't going to work out.

Some would argue that it isn't up to the schools to decide who should become truckers and who shouldn't. And lets face it, the school makes money on teaching people to drive trucks, so others might argue that the schools have a vested interest in putting as many students through their program as possible.

Both arguments are valid, but a school that has its student's best interest at heart will screen the applicants before signing them up. They can't refuse a student, but they can suggest that truck driving my not be the applicants best career move.

In screening applicants, the schools examine factors like family environment, mechanical aptitude, past driving record, ability to cope with the stresses of the job, as well as personal motivation and self-reliance. All are important attributes in a successful truck driver, and the family considerations stem from the fact that a driver is often away for extended periods of time. Can the family cope with the absence of one of the parents for two to three weeks at a time?

Only the student-to-be can accurately answer those questions. You've got to be honest with yourself and base your decision on the reality of your situation, not your dreams. If the school's employment councilor thinks you should consider some other type of employment, they may be trying to save you a pile of money and disappointment.

In all likelihood, the new driver will begin his career in a longhaul environment, and longhaul means being away from home for periods of perhaps several weeks at a time. That aspect of the job needs to be considered before undertaking the training. New drivers may move on to local or regional work, but realistically, that move may take several years.

Scout the Carriers

Ralph Boyd, president of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association, strongly recommends talking with the trucking companies themselves to determine what employment opportunities might be available following graduation, and what kind of an applicant they're looking for. Boyd also suggests finding out what the carrier wants in an entry-level driver. "Some hire right from school, others don't," Boyd said. "Ask them what their policy is, and take their advice."

Atlantic Canada is one of the few jurisdictions in the country with programs in place to offer new drivers an "internship program," where students work with experienced drivers delivering real loads. It's as close to real life as it gets, but it's designed to be a learning experience for the new driver not a convenience for the carrier. In fact, Boyd says the internship program can be costly for the carrier. "With the increased risk of an accident and the loss of productivity of the truck during the training period, carriers face quantifiable costs by participating in the program," he said. "But in the end, the new driver is less of a risk than a fresh-out-of-school driver would be. That's what the carriers get from the internship program."

There are only a few schools currently participating in the Regional Industry Training Council's Internship plan, but the program's director for Nova Scotia, Dianne Isnor, reports a 97% placement rate for graduates of these driving schools.

Beware, though, of the difference between the placement rate, and the number of drivers who are still employed a year after graduation. Boyd said that in 1998, 1400 people graduated from driving schools in the region, but only 30% of them were still working in the business a year later. For the reasons mentioned earlier, screening would help increase the rate of successful integration into the industry, and it could also free up space in the classroom for other candidates who might go on to become long-term employees.

The carriers also play a crucial role in successfully integrating a new driver into the business. The carrier who accepts a new driver, then hands him a trip to New York City with a dozen drops in the Bronx, will probably never see that driver again. "It's just too stressful," says Pete Million, chief recruiter for Schneider National Carriers in Guelph, Ont. "These new people aren't ready for that kind of experience. It scares them. It drives them out of the business faster than any other aspect of trucking."

Million advises prospective drivers to scout a carrier who's prepared to work with the new driver and "hold his hand" while he learns the ropes. "A carrier who says they can put you right to work may actually be putting you out to pasture," he said. "Very few driving school graduates are ready for the real world."

But back to what the carriers want in a new driver. What is being taught in the schools, and the skill sets the carriers need aren't always the same. Tracey Jobe, owner and president of InTransit Personnel in Toronto, sees many a new driver come knocking at her door. She says many of the graduates lack the skills they need to perform in the real world and she thinks that's a result of the emphasis certain schools place on passing the license test.

"Many of the newly-trained applicants I see can pre-trip a truck with their eyes closed," she said. "But they can't back the truck into a loading dock." She points to the emphasis on pretrips during Ontario's driving exam, while requiring candidates to merely back the truck 100 feet or so in a straight line. "That just won't cut it in the city," she says.

Scout the Schools, Too

Both Ken Ellacott of Challenger Motor Freight and Ayr Motor Express's Joe Richard echo Jobe's sentiments on the competency of driving school graduates. Both express concern that some schools place too much emphasis on the academic part of the curriculum, and not enough on the driving lessons. To be fair to the schools, they frequently survey the carriers to see what they want, and one would have to presume that the carriers are telling the schools that the textbook stuff is important.

Million, himself, says the academic element is very important to Schneider National. "They have to know how to fill out a log book, how to cross the border, they must understand the safety regulations and even the Transportation of Dangerous Goods regulations," he says. "But I disagree with simply plopping a student down in front of a computer for a stimulating round of computer-based training. They'll never begin to understand this stuff if they can't deal with the issue in classroom setting --with the instructor and the other students."

It all boils down to the amount of time available to apply to certain lessons. And with a driving school, like any other business, you get what you pay for.

There are costs involved in mounting a truck-training program. Equipment, instructors, training materials, facilities, etc., it all adds up. The cost of the program has to cover the overhead, and leave a little in the owner's pocket. It's vital that the prospective students ask how much training the course fee will buy them.

A typical (typical is a dangerous word, when there are no national standards upon which to base the term "typical", so average or random sample might also apply, but don't mistake typical for normal) course might be six weeks in length. It'll cover the textbook stuff like principals of air brakes, winter driving, rules and regulations etc. It will also include an element of hands-on training with trucks operating on a practice area, sometimes called "the range," covering things like reversing, parking, steering, pre-trip inspections and that sort of thing. The third element is the on-the-road training, where students drive full-sized trucks out on the roadway with an instructor in the seat beside them.

How much time is devoted to each aspect is determined by the school it self, and hopefully, on the individual needs of the student. Few "standards" exist across the country governing the truck training schools, but several associations are working to develop their version of a standard curriculum. So, when choosing a school, it's very important to determine how much and what kind of training the school offers.

Dollar for Dollar

A "typical" school in central Ontario, said they offer a six-week program with 60 hours in the classroom, 40 to 60 hours on the range followed by 40 to 60 hours of on-road driving. The cost: $4000. Again, this is a typical example, not a standard.

Other, more comprehensive programs offer a similar six-week curriculum, followed by a six-week period of on-the-job training, with remedial training offered as required. A program like this will cost considerably more, but depending on the feelings of the carriers hiring from these schools, the extra time may or may not offer better employment prospects.

Then there are the so-called license mills; schools whose goal is to pass on just enough instruction to the student that he'll probably be able to pass a ministry test, but little more. These courses tend to be less expensive, somewhere in the $600 to $1000 range. To a student whom a complete training program isn't necessary, such as the wife of an owner operator who is familiar with the industry, who is considering becoming a team driver and will have a full-time onboard tutor, this might be the way to go. But to a new student, foreign to the ways and means of the trucking industry, programs such as these are inadequate.

A typical classroom curriculum might include the following elements or more, depending on the school: Customer Service in the Trucking Industry, The Air Brake System, Border Crossing Procedures, Defensive Driving, Pre-Trip Inspection, Basic Vehicle Operation, Defensive Driving, Dangerous Goods, Map Reading, Trip Planning and Log Books.

What to ask the school

Remember, it's your money you're investing in this training. Even if the funding comes in the form of a grant or a loan, once the money's gone and you're not working, it's money down the tube.
  • Does the school have solid relationships with local carriers that have hired its graduates in the past? Ask for carrier references as well as past students.
  • Does the school offer a placement or referral service?
  • What is the length of the program and how do the available hours breakout? How many in class? How many on the range? How many in the truck?
  • Do other students usually pass their ministry test on the first try?
  • If I don't pass on the first attempt, will it cost me any more money for the remedial training? How much per hour? How many hours?
  • Are the in-truck hours counted individually or for the entire time the truck is on the road with two or more students on board?
  • Does any industry association or government body, such as the Ministry of Colleges and Universities, The Truck Training Schools Association or the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council accredit the school? Is the school registered under the Private Vocational Schools Act? If they are, chances are the school has some guidelines to follow, such as minimum classroom or on-road time. If not, it's pretty well free to do what ever it wants. (Note: this may or may not be important, depending on the placement success of the school's past students.)
  • Does the school screen its applicants for suitability to a trucking career?
  • What are my chances of landing a driving job after the course is complete, and, what are my chances of remaining within the industry a year later?
  • You may have a difficult time getting a straight answer on this one, but ask if the school is intent on getting the student up to speed to pass the road test, or to qualify the student for entry into the trucking industry.

What to ask the carriers

The carriers are the people who will eventually write your paycheque. They are the ultimate arbiters of the quality of a particular school's graduates. If the carrier tells you, in no uncertain terms, that they don't hire graduates from School "X," then maybe that school doesn't deserve much further consideration.

Feel free to call the phone numbers listed in any driver recruiting advertisement and ask the recruiters the following questions. If they can't be bothered to answer them, maybe it's not a carrier you'd want to work with in the first place, or perhaps they don't hire new drivers. Feel them out.

  • Does the carrier hire fresh driving school graduates? If not, why not?
  • Does the carrier offer an in-house "finishing school" program for new drivers? How long does the program last, and are there any stipulations that hold a student liable for the cost of the finishing school if a minimum employment period hasn't been met?
  • Can the carrier recommend a specific school, one that they have received satisfactory applicants from in the past?
  • Can the carrier outline specific skills that they require from new drivers?
  • Is the carrier willing to make a conditional offer of employment prior to enrolment and dependant upon successful completion of the course?
  • Is this the right carrier for you to begin your career with? Do they keep drivers out for weeks at a time, or do they ease new drivers into the job?
Armed with the answers to these questions, you should be able to determine, first, if you are the right person for a longhaul driving job. Second, if the carriers will even look at you when you graduate, and third, if the school you're considering is one that can launch you into a satisfying career, or a school whose interest is only in parting you and your money.

Part III of School Daze will look into getting the first job and the first year or two in the business. What to expect and what to prepare for. Watch this space in the next two weeks for more information on how to launch your trucking career.

Any comments, please e-mail or call, Jim Park 416-614-5811 or jim@highwaystarmagazine.com

Part 3 Of This Story

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