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School Daze, Pt.III

by Jim Park

Part 2 Of This Story

Venturing Into the Workforce

If you think getting through school was tough, wait until you try to land your first job. The trucking industry is the first to admit that it desperately needs a steady influx of warm bums to fill all of their vacant seats, but at the same time, the industry remains pretty choosy about who gets the nod.

The most sought-after commodity in a truck driver today is experience. It's also the one thing most recent graduates lack. How then, to bridge the gap between all the eager wannabes and the fleets who won't touch then with a ten-foot pole?

Experience, or at least the kind of experience the fleets are looking for, is more than being able to shift gears and keep the truck between the white lines --although that's certainly part of it. Really, it amounts to developing the judgement needed to keep the new driver out of trouble. It's about knowing when you're in over your head, and for the fleets; it's mostly about not getting stuck with the bill for somebody who hasn't yet developed those skills.

An interesting study was released recently by the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators, which seemed to call into question the validity of commercial driver training. The study suggested that, regardless of the training they received prior to entering the profession, drivers with less than three years of experience were involved in a disproportionately high number of accidents. The study also said that whether or not the new entrant had received any formal training, trained and untrained drivers were equally represented in the crash statistics. That might seem like a stunning indictment of the driver training protocol that currently exists, but what it's really saying is that there's no substitute for experience.

Here are few of the points taken from the survey:

  • Young, inexperienced commercial drivers are over-represented in truck crashes -three to four times the rate per distance traveled of older drivers.
  • Young U.S. truck drivers in crashes have problems of: overly aggressive driving, as in following other vehicles too closely, unsafe speed; vehicle control, as in speed, turning and backing accidents; and attentional deficits, as in some loss of control accidents.
  • Young Canadian bus, heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers are involved in crashes that differ from older, more experienced drivers - e.g., more single vehicle crashes - that could be attributable to relative inexperience (lack of skills) and/or risk-taking behaviors.
While the truck training industry claims it's getting pressure from the carrier to produce job-ready driver, the academic training is obviously not all that the candidates need. Peter Million of Schneider National Carriers says he wants recruits who know how to get a truck across the border, how to fill out a log book and how to conduct a pre-trip inspection. Other carriers offered a similar wish list, but many of them stated that the driving school grads still didn't possess the driving skills necessary to compete in a dangerous workplace like downtown New York City.

The schools claim, and rightly so, that they can't possibly teach a new driver all the skills required in a reasonable amount of time, and at a reasonable cost. If money and time weren't a factor, perhaps we'd see an eight-month curriculum costing upwards of $12,000 to $15,000. But money and time are indeed a factor, so the schools are forced to compromise and teach what the carriers say they value most in a new driver; academic skills and a working ability to steer and gear a truck.

Of course, as the CCMTA study points out, new drivers still lack critical skills, and those skills can be categorized as judgement skills. Those skills, unfortunately, can only be inherited through experience.

The skills required to foresee or predict the results of a particular action, or inaction, can't be taught in a classroom. Looking to a driving school to produce a driver with the built-in experience to prejudge a situation is like asking a rookie doctor to diagnose a rare disorder, one which he has only read about but never seen.

Here's a bit more from the survey:

In a previous study (1991), a researcher named Campbell was able to show that young drivers of heavy trucks have a much higher fatal accident involvement rate (per miles driven) than older, more experienced truck drivers. Campbell found that drivers under the age of 19 are over-involved by a factor of 4, and drivers aged 19-20 are over-involved by a factor of 6. In fact, drivers of large trucks continue to be over-involved through age 26. As observed by Campbell, young drivers are over-involved as drivers of commercial vehicles to about the same degree as when they are drivers of passenger vehicles.

In other words, the risk profile of any younger driver seems to be the same, regardless of the type of vehicle driven. Hence, young male drivers are typically a higher risk than the older male drivers are.

Back to the study:

  • There is little evidence to suggest that compulsory training for commercial drivers would lead to reduced crash risk or involvement.
  • Support for compulsory training is relatively high among stakeholders - this may reflect ignorance of the research data regarding the crash reduction effects of driver training and/or support for agendas other than road safety.
  • Driver licensing practices across Canada are not uniform for commercial driver license classes.
  • Almost all stakeholders identified a lack of uniformity in driver testing and licensing procedures across Canada as a problem and called for this situation to be rectified.
With such incredible lack of uniformity across the provinces and territories, it's difficult to say with certainty that a driver trained in, say, Manitoba, is as qualified as a driver trained in Newfoundland. Here are examples of the inconsistencies in the commercial driver's license tests across Canada.
  • Theoretical Test-The number of questions on the theoretical test ranges from as few as 12 for Class 3 in the Yukon Territories to as many as 95 for Class 1 in Saskatchewan. The questions are usually on the rules of the road and on sign and signal identification. Sometimes, there are additional questions on air brakes (New Brunswick, Ontario, and Québec).
  • Road Test-The duration of the road test ranges from a minimum of 30 minutes in Alberta to a maximum of 2 hours for Class 1 in New Brunswick. The content of the road test for commercial classes of licenses is similar to that for all other licenses and includes: starting and stopping, turning and lane changes, passing and parking, etc., but most provinces also have additional testing for commercial classes. Some provinces specifically require pre-trip inspections (for Classes 1, 2 and 3 in British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Québec). Most testing is done on public roadways, with some commercial backing-up tested on private property (Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Yukon). Ontario is the only province to have a test centre which provides a road course.
With all that in mind, is it any wonder that fleets are somewhat reluctant to hire inexperienced, recently graduated drivers?

What's generally lacking at the end of the course is the judgement element of the driver's newly acquired skill set, and that's not the fault of either the school or the student. It simply takes time to develop the cognitive skills required to develop good judgement and the ability to recognize an eminently hazardous situation. Time behind the wheel, that is.

What the carriers seem to want is a well-trained and perfectly rounded entry-level driver, complete with the judgement skills of a 10-year veteran driver. They'll never achieve this until they are prepared to invest a substantial amount of money in the post-driving school development of the new driver.

Finishing Schools

A relatively new concept in the U.S., and still practically unheard of here in Canada. It involves placing a qualified new driver in the second seat of a team operation with an experienced coach or trainer. The crew runs as a team, while the coach teaches the newbie the rules of the real road. Following a period of time, the coach evaluates the new driver, whereupon he's sent back to school for any required upgrading and he must also pass a secondary exam based upon what he has learned out on the road.

Some of the more enlightened Canadian carriers have adopted their own in-house finishing schools for new-hires, and they're experiencing varying degrees of success. But perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest problem seems to lie with the student's level of expectation following being actually hired. He's told to expect wealth and travel with the new licence, what he gets is a cut rate of pay, more time in a dirt lot practicing the art of backing up and paper work on top of paper work. Eventually he'll see the light of day, but it's easy to get discouraged during this retraining process.

The carriers themselves often express reluctance about investing in these supplementary training programs because of the difficulty in retaining the newly hired -and retrained- driver. The drivers figure they can now flog their new skills on the open market in the hope of a better paying job than the present carrier is offering, leaving the carrier who did make the investment in training with a still-empty stable.

Naturally enough, the carrier has a right to expect that a driver, who has received a substantial amount of training, will stay around long enough to repay the debt. If that doesn't happen often enough, the carrier is apt to withdraw from the market leaving one less source for the newcomer to get the experience he needs. That's a lose-lose situation. Sadly, there are plenty of carriers who'll gladly scoop up the driver with a bit of advanced training, making the driver's obligation seem a little fuzzy.

Those carriers who do embrace this kind of On The Job training are reporting a high degree of success with the drivers they manage to retain after the training period is over. There are several success stories coming out of Nova Scotia, all emanating from the Regional Industry Training Council (RITC), or "Ritcey" as it's called.

In this case, the second driver is indeed part of a team but the truck isn't run on the same schedule as an experienced team would be. The emphasis remains on training, or coaching, the second driver. The trainee gets the benefit of driving along side an experienced driver who can discuss situations as they arise while they are still fresh in everyone's mind.

Similar programs exist in other parts of Canada, while perhaps not as finely tuned or structured. The benefits of the finishing-school concept are obvious and the costs are quantifiable, but judging by the lack of carriers willing to develop a program of their own, it would seem some carriers believe that the costs and risks continue to out-weigh the benefits. Too bad.

Fly By Night

Many new drivers continue to find out the hard way, the limits of their experience. That's an expensive exercise for a carrier. And often, the driver scares himself right out of the business in the process. New drivers should be wary of a carrier who'll hand them the keys and send them on their way with little or no orientation. This kind of carrier sets the new driver up to fail, knowing that there will be another driver coming along behind the first one. It's the old revolving door thing.

New recruits who are serious about the career potential of a trucking job should understand that they're not ready for the big time the day they graduate. They should understand that the carrier is taking a bit of a risk in hiring them, and they should understand that they have an obligation to the carrier who takes a chance on them the first time out. Of course, there's no way to force anybody to stay with an employer. Some of the poorer carriers might attempt to exploit a new driver's lack of experience by "requiring" them to do certain things that aren't quite legal, but that's the peril of this game.

It's important for a new driver to deal with a reputable carrier from the start, which is why it's so important to ask for recommendations from other drivers before hiring on to a carrier. It may seem great to get the first job offer, but the first job may be the last job if the driver is just thrown to the wolves.

Where to Start

The carrier you'll want to start working with may not run the flashiest of trucks or pay top dollar, but remember, you've got a few dues to pay. Go job hunting with one thing in mind; to get the experience you need at the hands of an experienced senior driver. Later in your career, you'll be glad you did.

Even before you sign up at a school, ask what carriers they're placing graduates with, then call the carriers and ask what additional training they offer.

When talking with a carrier, explain that you're looking to round-off the training you received in school, then examine the carrier's training program, and if it meets your requirements, suggest that you'll be prepared to stay with the carrier for a while. They'll appreciate the loyalty. It's in short supply these days.

You can expect to be put into a team situation at first, and you'll probably spend a fair bit of time away from home. Bear in mind that until you get the experience the primo carriers are looking for, you'll not fit their program for a while, so be prepared and advise the family that you'll be gone a while. It's always best to discuss these things up front. Nobody likes surprises.

Keep your expectations realistic. You're still learning, so you'll probably not get paid top dollar. Your turn will come.

Keep an open mind throughout the finishing process. Tap your trainer for all he or she has to offer. You'll be the better for it.

Next month, we'll begin a series examining the trials and tribulations of becoming an owner operator. Almost everybody dreams of owning their own truck. It's achievable, but it's a tough haul, and many don't make it. We might be able to help.

Part 4 Of This Story

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