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National Trucking Week 2015: We’ll Take Truck Drivers over Driverless Trucks

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News articles earlier this year about driverless trucks operating in Nevada and the Alberta oil sands under restricted conditions set off speculation about whether we’ll need truck drivers within a few decades – and whether autonomous vehicles are an answer to the driver shortage.

National Trucking Week, celebrated September 6 to 12 this year, is a good time to consider the truck driving occupation and what we can do to encourage the best candidates to enter a demanding and essential career that requires judgment, planning, know-how and a host of other skills. Unlike autonomous vehicles, drivers may be called upon to react quickly to unexpected incidents on the road, bringing all their varied experience about their equipment, the load they’re hauling, and road conditions into play. The question is, is the trucking industry appealing to enough quality candidates to meet our needs today – and in the future?

Planners of large-scale projects in Northern BC are realizing the pool of available drivers is diminishing at a time when they need it to grow. A report developed by a liquefied natural gas (LNG) provincial working group identifies “truck driver” is the 7th most in-demand occupation to complete these projects.

Today, there are about 300,000 truck drivers in Canada – that’s 1 percent of the population and 1.5 percent of the labour force.[1] In BC, most truck drivers are male (96 percent), and nearly half (47 percent) are between the ages of 45 and 64.[2] With less interest in the career from young men, the traditional labour pool for trucking, governments are funding programs to train women and Aboriginal candidates to be competent for the occupation.

The type of training truck drivers receive varies, as there is no training standard for the occupation. Traditionally, driver candidates often started work on farms, as family members or employees, and honed their technical and mechanical skills on heavy machinery. The in-house training culture that existed during supply and price management of the industry diminished as trucking became deregulated in the 1990s. High school graduation, and sometimes not even that, became the prerequisite to become a truck driver, along with a Class 1 licence. Part of the problem is that truck driving was – and still is, inaccurately – considered an “unskilled” trade because no certification requirement exists. Expert veteran drivers, trainees who’ve invested time and money in reputable, quality training programs, and trucking employers are justified in scoffing at that label.

In fact, a new National Occupational Standard (NOS) for the Commercial Vehicle Operator (Truck Driver) published by the Trucking Human Resources Council in May 2015 puts paid to the description. The list of skills and competencies required runs to 68 pages and includes workplace/interpersonal (“soft”) skills; non-driving job functions and equipment operation; and driving-specific competencies. And these are the core occupational competencies only, not including additional skills and knowledge needed to, for example, operate specialized equipment like the oversize/overweight vehicles that haul heavy cargo, including equipment used at industrial sites.

The NOS is a foundational document, developed with the participation of drivers, fleets, industry experts and trucking associations across Canada; trucking companies and driver training schools would benefit from making it their guidebook. To seat their trucks with the type of drivers who’ve mastered its competencies, companies must accept that some level of participation in training is required, whether that means through in-house programs to “finish” recent graduates from truck driver training programs or providing mentors to new recruits. Many larger companies are already doing this. The rewards range from better-qualified, safer drivers operating their trucks to improved retention – and a stronger reputation with clients for professionalism, safety and reliability.

Ideally, recognition of the importance of the truck driving profession, better training, and a commitment by companies to investing in entry-level drivers would influence more young people to consider a driving career. During National Trucking Week – every week - we salute those who already have.

[1] Trucking HR Canada, National Occupational Standard: Commercial Vehicle Operator (Truck Driver), May 2015, p. 5.

[2] http://www.bctrucking.com/industry/employment

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