By R. Bruce Striegler

In the spring of 2012, the Canadian Trucking Alliance issued its “Blue Ribbon Task Force on Driver Shortage in Trucking.” This was followed by a Conference Board of Canada report in February 2013 focusing on the industry’s biggest single problem. While not apparent to those outside, trucking in Canada is facing a long-term, chronic shortage of qualified drivers. In some regions of the country and some sectors of the industry this is already evident. Class 1/AZ company truck driver positions are reported as some of the most difficult positions to fill, along with truck/trailer mechanics. The trucking sector has a history of high turnover, but over the next ten years could be losing close to twenty per cent of its workforce to retirement.

A number of systemic issues underpin the shortage; greying of the driver population, negative public perceptions of the industry and truck driving jobs, and the fact that truck driving is not considered a skilled occupation outside the industry. Driver shifts and out-of-town work create an unpopular lifestyle for many. The vacancy rate for the industry in 2012 showed 12,000 positions were not filled. Highest rates reported were for Nova Scotia, Alberta and British Columbia

Current truck driver pool is aging

The Conference Board report notes that the age of the average truck driver has increased more rapidly than the age of the average worker due to fewer young workers entering the industry. It also pointed out that the demand for truck drivers will increase as industries that rely on trucking services continue to grow. Finally, it projects that by 2020, the gap between the supply and demand of drivers is expected to be 25,000. This number could exceed 33,000, assuming a lower rate of productivity growth. The Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council (CTHRC) says there are approximately 31,000 trucking firms employing upwards of 290,000 individuals, the majority (68 per cent) are class 1/AZ truck drivers. The industry continues to be male-dominated with women making up only a small percentage of the workforce, particularly in the driver and mechanic occupations.

The current trucking sector workforce, like all industries, is aging. Eighteen per cent of the workforce covered in the CTHRC survey was 55 years of age and older. Most of the demand for truck transport services is tied to the manufacturing, retail and wholesale trade industries. Demand for goods and services from retail industries is expected to grow significantly by 2020. The trucking industry’s real GDP is expected to increase from $17 billion to $21.4 billion from 2011.

The view from a private truck driving school

John Beaudry, President of Transport Training Centres of Canada (TTC) says, “We do truck driver training and heavy equipment operator training. They’re six-week long, entry-level courses regulated by the Ontario Ministry of Education.” Along with driver and heavy equipment training operations, TTC offers Skid School, and Beaudry explains, “Our skid control and recovery driver training program shows how to anticipate and recover from skids. Studies show that even the best of drivers have a tendency to overestimate their driving abilities, and this training teaches the decision-making skills and quick reactions required in those situations.”

Established in 1996, the company trains between 3,500 to 4,000 new drivers per year at 19 training centres across Ontario and one each in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Beaudry explains that trainee numbers vary, due to the employment situation. “If there’s been big lay-offs we become very busy because a lot of people were displaced, and with not many job opportunities, a lot of them want to become truck drivers. But in times of booming economies such as northern Ontario where the mining industry has gained traction, we have a lot of competition.”

With about 350 pieces of equipment that include trucks, trailers and heavy equipment, Transport Training Centres of Canada also offers courses on entry level shifting, advanced progressive shifting techniques, fuel management, and with their driver simulator, can reproduce more than 140 transmissions, 240 engines, 300 tire sizes and 33 axle ratios, in any combination. The simulator also allows users to adjust to grades and vehicle weights.

From his point of view, Beaudry says the problem with driver retention is company-specific. “Some companies have less of a problem than others. It’s fiercely competitive. As the available pool of drivers keeps shrinking and the appetite for them keeps increasing, there are more and more trucking companies that want to work with schools like ours as a source of entry-level drivers. Trucking companies have developed programs to start drivers right from our school and go to a mentorship program. Those companies are very successful retaining their drivers. It’s a great start, their investment in new blood pays off.”

“We see lot of competition from carriers, even between one another when they approach TTC to recruit. When they knock on our door looking for drivers, they often think it will be easy to pick up a new green driver from one of the schools. They don’t realize that that the competition for new drivers is strong, and that many companies already have programs and mentorship structures to take them on.” Those companies, says Beaudry, offer something that resonates with new drivers, and satisfy their needs.

“There are a lot of companies out there that are very late out the gate competing for drivers. Even with new drivers, wages continue to increase, and carriers throw in incentives to allow them to compete more effectively, which may include a new truck, more home time, or a greater choice of destinations. They’re doing what they can to create a more effective catch net.”