Learning Curve: Where have the drivers gone?

by Tracy Clayson
Tracy Clayson
Tracy Clayson

While the North American truck driver shortage is not considered a hot news story today, it should be: it is a major problem with far-reaching consequences and it refuses to go away.

This problem is extremely painful for shippers. They are already facing serious challenges in controlling their costs and emissions reduction targets, while ensuring adherence to supply chain schedules. Add to this the lack of drivers and restrictive regulations around drivers’ hours of service and it is fair to say shippers are being forced to negotiate a rocky road.

The shortage is also choking Canada’s economic opportunities. The Conference Board of Canada released a report in February 2013 called “Understanding the Truck Driver Supply and Demand Gap and Its Implications for the Canadian Economy“.

Driver shortfall

It showcased challenges facing for-hire carriers, private fleets, shippers, brokers, consumers—and ultimately harming the entire Canadian economy. However, the key challenge may come in 2020 when a shortfall of between 25,000 and 33,000 for-hire truck drivers is expected.

This is not a trivial figure. The combined employment for the industry including warehousing is 477,600 jobs, with the trucking industry’s GDP at $17B, forecast to reach $21.4B by 2020. Trucks move almost every consumer good (at least partway) into, around and out of Canada.

The aging population is impacting the driver shortage as well. The average age of drivers has risen from 40 in 1996 to 44 in 2006, with only 12 percent of the driver pool under 30 years of age. While many carriers are seeing older drivers delay their retirement to offset financial losses suffered during the recent economic downturn—and this might stem the tide a bit—it is not a long-term solution.

Other challenges

There are other challenges. Compared to many other sectors, the trucking industry offers less competitive earnings opportunities. Drivers also must work on their own and away from home. They deal with monotonous activity, inconsistent schedules and traffic congestion. They are constantly monitored, and they can miss opportunities for increased income due to unexpected shortages of loads, delays due to border crossing processes and vehicle inspections.

Clearly, improved working conditions, earnings, equipment are needed to attract people to the industry. We need to address the amount of time spent on the road, unpaid miles and working hours. Drivers also need more support from dispatch and operations, as well as better opportunities for advancement.

And, since we know the truck driver shortage is a major challenge facing most developed countries, we need to get more feedback from actual truck drivers to better understand their dilemma. So far, studies are lacking in this area.

There is another impediment to progress. Truck driving today is not considered a skilled trade. This means it is nearly impossible for qualified foreign truck drivers to enter Canada and continue their careers on our roads. As a result, compared with other sectors, it is very difficult for the industry to compete for immigrant labour.

According to the Conference Board of Canada report on the Truck Driver Supply and Demand Gap, provincial nominee programs, which have been introduced on an ad hoc basis, can allow temporary workers to enter the country to work as truck drivers. But since the programs are geared toward attracting workers on a temporary basis, they are often little more than a “band-aid solution.”

Occupational classification

David Bradley, CEO of the Canadian Trucking Alliance and president of the Ontario Trucking Association, also heads up the Blue Ribbon Task Force on the Driver Shortage. For years he has pushed for recognition of “truck driver” as a skilled occupation and for development of an occupational standard for entry-level truck drivers.

Bradley says only then will funding for new entries to the industry be made available for training and apprenticeships through the Canada Jobs Grant. And, only then will Canada gain the access it needs in order to recruit foreign workers as needed.

A strategy is most certainly required now to boost the industry’s image. As the economy gains a bit of momentum, there has never been a better time to attract an influx of good new drivers. However, if the industry can’t figure out why becoming a truck driver is a good idea, you have to ask yourself: why a prospective driver would come to this conclusion?

Tracy Clayson is managing partner, business development of Mississauga, Ontario-based In Transit Personnel. tracy@in-transit.com

From the July-August 2014 Print Edition