Driver Profile: Craig Butt
by Jim Park
It's hard to feed your family on minimum wage, says Newfoundland trucker Craig Butt. Maybe just slightly harder than turning your back on family and friends to find a more prosperous future somewhere else in Canada. Butt faced that dilemma just a few years ago. He, like many other islanders, found that the grass truly is greener to the west. In order to earn his stripes, to gain the experience Newfoundland carriers want, Butt had to leave his Newfoundland home and head to Ontario.
But he's back in Paradise now - Paradise, Nfld., that is - with his wife Gail and four-year-old son Bradley. He got the experience he needed and a whole lot more in the deal. Looking back, he says the brief interval spent living and working in Ontario was difficult, but worth it in the long run. He still wonders why it has to be that way.
Having worked at several minimum-wage jobs in his early years, Butt decided that trucking would make an appealing career change. He'd been working around trucks for five years or so at a local service station/truckstop, and thought trucking would be his kind of job. After talking it over with his wife, Butt decided to sign up for a driving course at The Canadian Training Institute at Bay Roberts, Nfld. Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) picked up half of the $5000 fee, while Butt arranged a student loan for the balance of the cost of the three-month program.
"When I'd done the course, I figured I could get a job at home," he says. Then he adds, with a wry chuckle, "A lot of the young ones who are getting to the job now don't realize they're going to have to move away to get the experience."
He sat for three months after he graduated, watching the bills pile up, before deciding he'd have to move. Nobody in Newfoundland will touch you with less than two years experience, Butt laments. "My instructor kept calling me, asking me if I wanted to move away. At the end of it, I decided that if I'm not going to get anything here I might as well make a start and move."
Gail had a good job at the local hospital, so it didn't make sense to pull up stakes completely just to earn him experience for a job he wasn't sure he'd be able to land at home. They'd only been married a short time, but the pair agreed that a year apart wouldn't be too high a price to pay for the prospect of a better future.
Atlantic Canada appears to have more than its share of new drivers. HRDC and several other agencies have been aggressively recruiting prospective truckers and funding their training, but few of them graduate with jobs. All the carriers, Butt says, want experience. So, with too few openings and too many fresh commercial licences, many new drivers are forced to move elsewhere in Canada to find work. And not all of them return.
According to an official at the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council, "Atlantic Canada has become a net exporter of commercial drivers."
Butt's tale is regrettably common in Newfoundland. With an ironic twist only a Newfoundlander could conjure up, Butt says all the work in Newfoundland is done. "We've got an obligation to move to Ontario and help them with theirs."
When he finally headed west, Butt took up with a broker, Carlos Jesus, who had trucks on with MacArthur Express in Cambridge, Ont. Jesus, it turned out, was Portuguese, with a wife who hailed from Newfoundland. The relationship between the Portuguese and Newfoundlanders goes back a long way, both having cultures based on fishing, and apparently it's alive today. Not only did Jesus have a job for Butt, but an apartment in his house too - island hospitality, Ontario style.
Butt's the first one to admit that he was still pretty green when he headed west. He hadn't driven truck anywhere other than Newfoundland, and he says his father-in-law drove to Ontario with him to help him get through Quebec. But no sooner had he unpacked his bags in Cambridge, than he was on his way to California, a big adjustment for anybody to make in the space of 10 days. Luckily, he was half of a team.
MacArthur turned the pair loose -Butt and his 26-year veteran team leader- and the Newfoundlander never looked back, though team driving took some getting used to. U.S. Interstate highways were something he'd only seen pictures of and California was a world he'd only heard about. It's only a continent away according to the folks who draw the maps, but seeing the Gold Coast for the first time was a real eye opener. Miami, too, was a shock. He'd never seen houses enclosed in a protective compound with razor wire and chain-link fences. "We don't even lock our doors in Paradise," says Butt.
He spent many an hour over those first few months wondering what he'd got himself into. His days off in Cambridge were lonely, and he was missing Gail and Bradley in a big way. He had plenty of time to reflect on how far away from home he really was.
Nine months had passed since he'd seen his bride when an opportunity came up back home. He took it. The balance of the course loan and the rest of the bills were assuming more manageable proportions, so he went back having achieved his goal. It finally began to seem that he'd made the right choice.
Butt learned something other than driving skills while he was away: money isn't everything. He was earning nearly $1500 for two weeks of team driving in Ontario. Now he's clearing $450 or so for four to five days work (plus paid meals), running between St. John's and PEI for Ryan's Transport. Butt figures he's still way better off.
"I'm home more often, I'm earning double what I was before I started driving, and Gail's still got her job," he says. "I'm not the first guy from these parts to have to move away before I realized how good we've got it here.
"Now, if they could only do something about the roads and the wait for the boat home."