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School Daze, Pt.IV

by Jim Park

Part 3 Of This Story

Knocking on Doors, Still

You're darned right it's discouraging. You've got the schooling they said you needed, yet the carriers keep slamming their doors in your face. What gives?

Well, from the carrier's point of view it's a matter of the degree of risk they're prepared to take on your behalf. And the only reliable way to mitigate that risk is to hire experienced drivers.

The insurance industry is beginning to tighten up, causing the carriers more and more difficulty in convincing their insurance underwriters to accept that risk. If the increased exposure from new drivers means a rate increase to the carrier, they'd just as soon continue paying the escalating costs of recruiting existing drivers. Either way you look at it, recruiting drivers or paying insurance surcharges; it's really just a cost of doing business. But one method is statistically more predictable than the other.

The Insurance Factor

The insurance people are really big on statistics. And if their statistics suggest that new drivers represent a higher risk than experienced drivers do, they will apply surcharges to the carrier based on the experience of the carrier's drivers. Those surcharges can be as high as 20% per truck, or about $2000, for a carrier with a lot of U.S. exposure.

Those statistics also suggest that as a driver gains experience, he becomes less of a risk. The individual new driver may not be any better or worse than the next driver may --but the statistics are the final arbiter.

Some insurance companies have seen fit to accept certain levels of training or co-driving experience as an equivalent level of experience, thereby mitigating the perceived risk to the loss ratio. This affords new drivers who have trained at certain accredited schools a higher degree of acceptance in the industry, and thus a better chance of landing a job. That's certainly something to inquire about when choosing a school. Ask if any insurance companies recognize the school's program as being worth a certain amount of over the road experience. That should be a factor in choosing a school.

But it's not just the insurance companies who are making it difficult for the new driver to break into the industry.

The motor carrier enforcement folks are keeping a pretty tight lid on things as well, these days, which forces carriers to take along hard look at increased risk of losing points from their Commercial Vehicle Operator's Record (CVOR) due to the increased accident risk posed by inexperienced drivers.

The CVOR

Carriers are subject to a rating process, imposed by respective ministries of transportation, which determine their level of fitness to conduct business as a motor carrier. The ratings range from unsatisfactory, to conditional, to satisfactory to, in Ontario only, excellent. A carrier with an excellent rating guards that rating vigorously. And as you might expect, you won't find many freshly minted Class 1 licenses at a carrier with that kind of rating.

The ministry uses a combination of on-road performance and internal audits to determine the carrier's rating, and any violations found can cause a downgrading of the rating. There's a system in place to level the playing field between large and small carriers so that larger carriers are permitted a greater number of violations due to their increased exposure. But on a scale of the ability to perform according to ministry expectations, it's equally difficult for both the large and small carrier.

In simple terms, the carrier is assigned a possible number of demerit points, based on the number of vehicles and miles traveled by the fleet. As it accumulates demerit points for violations the possibility of sanctions increases, and when a predetermined numbers of points have been accumulated the carrier could be shut down entirely by ministry officials. As you can see, hiring inexperienced drivers becomes a risky proposition for the carrier.

So there you sit, wanting a ride of your own so badly it hurts. For some, that hurt seems to be enough to make otherwise rational folks consider some downright dangerous counter-offensives.

I've heard, recently, from two rookie drivers who have shared with me their frustrations in not being able to find sympathetic carriers. They told me they'd been offered training jobs with long haul owner operators. The only catch is, the newbies are being asked to work as "contractors" as opposed to employees of the owner operators. On the surface, this means they are not true employees, the owner operator doesn't deduct tax or other mandated withholdings, and the employee has no legal standing as an insured individual. Here's the risky part: if the newbie were to be injured while in the U.S., he'd have no insurance coverage, and for the sake of argument between insurance companies, may even be considered an illegal passenger or unauthorized driver on the vehicle. That too would probably negate any chances of being eligible for insurance coverage.

Despite everyone's best intentions, this isn't the way I'd opt to break into the industry. It's a common enough practice, but one that might carry an impossibly high price tag.

Enlightened Carriers

Oh, they're out there, but few of them seem to advertise that they accept rookie drivers into their in-house training programs. In speaking with carriers who do offer training of "finishing school" to new drivers, they all tell the same story. "It's expensive to train these drivers, probably close to $10,000 when all is said and done," said Norm Schultz of Winnipeg-based Trans-X. "Basically, it's still less expensive to try to recruit from the existing talent pool."

Trans-X incidentally, runs a driving school in Winnipeg, and operates a three-phase driver training program for new drivers, both from their own school and for outside drivers looking for an opening.

Schultz says the Trans-X program is designed to move rookie drivers into a left-seat position, slowly, as they are able to cope with the pressures of the job.

John Oldfield, highwaySTAR's Safety and Compliance specialist suggests that too many team-driver training positions get the new driver in over their heads before they're ready for the rigors of the road. "Some of these plans just stick the new driver in with an experienced driver and they've got a ready-made team," he says. "What the new driver needs is coaching and training; what he's getting is a full blown team position, with all the pressures and demands of a team operation." That, Oldfield says, "scares the heck out of them, and often drives the new guys right out of the business. "

Brian Mannan, a new driver recently graduated from North American Truck Driver Training in Paris, Ont. says he's recently found an entry-level position with Mackinnon Transport in Guelph, Ont. He says he's working at a reasonable pace, learning the ropes, such as border crossings and the company paperwork, and he's never too far from home. " We go down to Louisville, Ky. with a load and then get a load back," he says. "We're usually back Tuesday evenings and then off till Wednesday afternoon, and then off again to Indiana, Kentucky or Tennessee, then home late Friday night."

And of course, the trainer has a huge impact on the success of the training program. Mannan's trainer, a fellow named Gerry Billing, is according to Mannan, "taking his time with me and easing me into this thing."

But ironically, trainers, good ones, are very hard to find. Let's face it, after working solo for many years, who really wants to climb back into the cramped confines of a team operation. Naturally, the experienced drivers are a little reluctant to give up their independence, without suitable compensation. And that's another reason many training situations fail in the long run.

If the trainer is paid a standard team rate, he's going to be inclined to push for as many miles as possible, while doing a little training at shift-change time. The focus in these situations is, unfortunately, making money not on developing the new talent. But this seems to be changing.

Carriers, the more enlightened ones anyway, are beginning to realize the cost of recruiting experienced talent is like throwing money into a black hole. And so, they are beginning to realize that it's ultimately less expensive to run the truck as a "Super Single" rather than a full team truck as a means of developing new talent.

Trans-X uses the Super-Single concept in the second phase of their training program. Basically, they dispatch the truck on a 15,000- to 17,000-mile month. They run a little harder than a single, but not flat-out like a team. Ian Mullin, the manager of the Trans-X Training Academy, calls the Super-Single program a cost-effective solution to the cost of training new drivers.

Now, there's another program, still in its infancy, operated by Your Advantage Staffing Consultants, Inc. in Ayr, Ont.

How's this for enlightened: The over-the road trainers at YASCI are paid by the mile, but they never turn a wheel. They're paid a premium rate to sit beside the trainee all day, and in fact they log their time on the bottom line of the logbook -on-duty, not driving. But it gets better. At night, the trainer has the option of grabbing a motel room, and he's given a per diem expense account if he chooses to use it, or he can sleep in the truck.

The principal advantage, claims Lori Van Opstal, president of YASCI, and the program's originator, is that the same amount of training it would take several months to accomplish in a full-team situation, can be done in about three weeks. "The three-week, one-on-one environment has a powerful impact on the student," she says. "The more progressive carriers are very happy with the results, so far, and lot's of other carriers are taking a serious look at what we're doing."

And again, Van Opstal emphasizes that it all hinges on the personality of the trainer. "Good trainers are really difficult to find, and the good ones make a huge difference in the outcome of the program," she said.

Putting in Time

Our School Daze series has generated a fair quantity of mail, most of it from eager new drivers seeking their first job opportunity. They've related their jog-search frustrations, and their successes as well. But the common theme is pretty clear. Few carriers are willing to open their doors to a driver with a brand new Class 1 license.

It's one thing to be offered a job, but remember, as a new driver you've still got a lot to learn. And sometimes the job offer you get may not be the best way to track your career into a good paying future. Beware of the nothing-left-to-loose-carrier that just needs a warm bum in the seat to make the truck payments. They'll offer you little in the way of training, and may wind up costing you a better job in the future if you wreck your driver's abstract in the process.

Beware of the carrier who want's to pay you under the table. The risk is enormous, especially from an insurance perspective. Many owner operators will work with trainees, but usually only under these arrangements. You may get the experience you need, but at what price?

This basically leaves the team-driver situation. Carriers seem to be starting to look at the team environment as a training ground rather than a proving ground. What's the point of tossing a potentially loyal driver to the proverbial wolves, having him chewed up and spit out and lost forever to the industry. Some carriers take a more proactive approach than others do, so it pays to ask lots of questions in the interview, if you can get one.

But what happens to the newbie who can't, for whatever reason, afford to be away from home for extended periods of time? Gary McDonald of Napanee, Ont. is one such fellow. He's middle-aged and values his family commitments. He's just not prepared to disappear for four to six weeks at a time, and he doesn't have any ambition to become a long-haul driver. "I don't remember reading anywhere that in order to become a truck driver, I had to give up my family life," he says. And I'm inclined to agree with him.

This industry desperately needs an infusion of drivers, and most of the candidates are required for long-haul service. But that's probably going to have to change, because many of the potential new entrants to the industry have a radically different work ethic than the traditional "old-school" truckers of the 60's and 70's. It's not necessarily any better or any worse, just different. And industry can keep demanding a certain type of driver, but if they just aren't there...?

Anyway, as for McDonald's quandary, summer is approaching and many small trucking operations will be looking for seasonal help. Again, the training and coaching might not be there, but there's certainly some experience to be gained.

My advice, for what it's worth, is to call or visit every carrier in your area. See what they have to offer in terms of training opportunities. Don't necessarily take the first job you're offered, because a more suitable opening might exist behind the next phone call. Ask if the carrier has a driver development program, and how they go about it. You probably won't want a full-steam-ahead team job at first. It's just too much to ask of a driver who's still wet behind the ears.

The Super-Single arrangements, such as offered by Trans-X, are far more suitable at first. Remember that you'll probably not earn top dollar for the first few months of the program, so don't expect it. Your pay will probably cover your expenses, and a little more, but that too might have to change as carriers awaken to the idea that there might be a family back home to support as well.

Above all, remember this. You've got more to offer the carrier in the long run than the other way around. A well trained, loyal employee is worth his weight in gold, but if the carrier fully expects you to bail out with the next job offer you get, they'll never be able to recover the costs of the training. They're taking a risk when they hire you, so be prepared to return the favor: make a commitment to the carrier. You'll both appreciate it in the long run.

That's it for School Daze. We hope it has offered some insight into the challenges of landing that first job. We'd appreciate your comments, as well as your experiences in the job market. Feel free to contact highwaySTAR on this or any other topic.

Next Month: To Buy or Drive. Have you got what it takes to become an Owner Operator.

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