Learning Curve: Building better truck drivers

by Tracy Clayson

Turn to any major trucking industry report and you’ll consistently find driver shortages as a leading topic.

Statistics point to an aging population and increasing demand for over-the-road (long-haul) drivers. Talk to drivers and they’ll tell you about declining wages, lack of opportunities for advancement, and general disatisfaction with the job—understandable considering the grueling hours most of them spend on the road. It is a demanding profession.

No one can do much about the aging population, but it’s possible to limit negative aspects and features of the job. We can re-evaluate how drivers are paid, as a means to prevent job-hopping. Meanwhile, drivers seeking a better work-life balance can sometimes be moved away from highway driving jobs to more local routes to increase the time they can spend at home with their families.

We also need to recognize opportunities are lacking for drivers to develop new skills, and that the tasks we require of them—driving between calls, making deliveries, loading and unloading shipments, updating onboard data, and communicating with dispatchers, shippers and receivers—can easily become repetitive, leaving them starved for variety in their work days.

Some people become drivers because the job is relatively attainable, not because they love the open road. A truck driver needn’t complete high school. There are no prerequisite mechanical, numeric or communication skills required. Many find it’s easier getting a truck driving licence than the licence for other trades. I’m not arguing that a driver’s work doesn’t require a specific set of skills that warrant a trade certification process; I’m saying the industry has so far been unsuccessful in initiating more formal ways of developing the next generation of truck drivers.

For decades, the industry has complained about ill-prepared graduates of truck driver training schools. According to an “Essential Skills” profile created by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, the two most important skills it identifies for truckers are document use (completing forms by ticking check boxes, reading schedules, and interpreting drawings) and problem solving. It also addresses numeracy, literacy, decision-making, critical thinking, and the ability to work as a team. For the full list see http://tinyurl.com/SkillsForTruckers.

But if you look at the list and compare it with what’s offered in driver training schools, you find large gaps. No significant training exists to teach a driver problem- solving and communication skills so he can respond to customer concerns and complaints. This is troubling, since drivers are often working alone, with very limited exposure to the public. It is tough for them to flip a switch and suddenly exhibit strong listening skills, or to develop other skills more typi- cally associated with sales and service roles.

Some have complained that graduates and new drivers can’t handle physical work including securing loads with tarps and straps, off-loading product from skid to dolly, or managing booms, forklifts, tailgates and pallet jacks while they are moving skids from the truck to the receiving area.

Problems don’t just exist with new drivers either. Once drivers have (theoretically) been trained, and have earned their licences, there is no need for recertification or re-testing.

So what solutions are available to improve truck driving as a career option? Some fleets have enhanced their safe driving programs with safety mechanisms to reduce collisions, such as backing sensors and collision-avoidance braking overrides. While technology will never supplant the skills of a qualified driver, driving aids can help truckers avoid potentially dangerous situations, or help them escape situations that have started to go bad. But as with any technological solution, these mechanisms cost money, and sometimes that’s tough to justify, especially against the ever-present need to reduce costs.

On the human side, industry-supported apprentice- ship programs are offered at high school, college and trade school. And leaders from stakeholders groups, including those in insurance, fuel, truck manufacturing, trucking companies and private fleets are working toward creating an elevated and skilled professional designation to ensure the continuation of truck driving as a sound career choice. These are positive steps.

But more is required. Companies must combine higher-level functions and training in technology, mechanics, customer service and sales skills in driver training and in the day-to-day duties of a truck driver in order to generate revenue and bring in cost savings.

Also, HR departments should recognize the benefits of promoting from within to enable opportunities for advancement. This can be done using associate training and job shadowing programs. The job may not change, but people can.