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Posted on March 26th 2013 2:55 PM
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How Trimac Transportation plugged up its driver leak by embracing values of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on the Driver Shortage. By Marco Beghetto

The driver shortage is real, it’s already here, and – despite certain opinion that razor tight capacity is good for the long-term prospects of trucking – a capacity crunch costs carriers and will reign in their ability to grow on what could be the cusp of improving economic conditions, says the president of one of Canada’s largest trucking companies.

“It’s a problem, definitely,” says Ed Malysa, president and COO of Calgary-based bulk hauling giant, Trimac Transportation, and a principal player behind the Canadian Trucking Alliance’s Blue Ribbon Task Force (BRTF) on the Driver Shortage. “Despite competitive compensation, we are not able hire the qualified drivers we need for our business. At any given time we may have a demand for 100 to 125 drivers across Canada.”

And while the degree of the shortage varies by sector, Malysa doesn’t buy that the problem is significantly more acute in the West. “I hear people saying things are okay in central Canada, but I can’t find the amount of qualified drivers I need in Quebec either. This shortage is across the board and what I’m seeing is that we are no longer able to get the same drivers we were a few years ago. The workforce is diminishing and the quality is diminishing.”

So, where to point the finger?  Malysa doesn’t. Instead of just talking about the BRTF as if it were a philosophical stencil, he took one of its pillar themes – that carriers should first look internally to fix problems within their control – and put it to work across his operations.

While the BRTF highlights the systemic underpinnings behind the shortage – such as driver demographics, low training qualifications and public perceptions of the job –  it is unique in the sense that it doesn’t shy away from more contentious issues such as driver compensation, lifestyle and treatment within the industry. Although there’s plenty of work still to be done, Malysa says Trimac is openly addressing many of these issues head-on.

Show Me the Money

On top of competitive pay packages, Trimac has adopted in its operations several of the BRTF report’s “core values” dealing with compensation, including: “Truck drivers should have an improved ability to predict what their weekly pay is going to be; that compensation packages need to be more transparent; and truck drivers should be paid for all the work that they do and earn enough to cover all reasonable out-of-pocket expenses incurred while on the road.”

“There’s a lot of unpaid time that drivers incur because of delays, loading and unloading etc.,” says Malysa. “Our goal was to create transparency and simplification of pay programs so people can clearly see how they are being paid for what they do and not some secretive process that wraps up productivity in the rate itself, so if there are delays or costs caused outside of the drivers’ own doing, they won’t have to absorb it.”

Life Happens

There’s no argument that overall pay must increase in long-haul truckload in order to sustain the industry. But while driver dissatisfaction commonly manifests more openly through pay issues, the underlying problems are often rooted in how drivers are treated and forced to deal with the irregular nature of trucking lifestyle and operations.

“If you raise the level of pay by itself, it will not promote drivers to come into our industry,” Malysa says. “That’s the biggest fallacy that many people believe. They think that if there’s no drivers the rates will go up and everyone will flood back to this job. I don’t think so. There are plenty of good paying jobs out there but if the fundamental issues of the job itself are not attractive, then you could throw money at it all you want but they’re not coming. The point is there are a lot of things in our drivers’ lives that can be changed first.”

Malysasaid more companies need to talk to drivers face-to-face about the issues they’re dealing with on the road and at home. “If you actually sit down with them and listen to them, your heart sinks. They work 70 hours a week and come home for 36 hours and can’t get things done at home in the hours they have because they have to set their mind to switch off from being at home to preparing for the road ahead.”

Part of the challenge is changing the industry culture to reflect  the reservations of both new generation drivers who have limited tolerance for the time-worn system  and aging veterans who physically are not able to sustain it any longer. “Some of it,” explains Malysa, “is because the level of compensation doesn’t provide for the level of income they want so they have to be out on the road more, but a larger part is that there aren’t enough drivers to allow flexibility and get guys home more.”

What Aretha Franklin Said

Truck drivers are our most important asset, the face of the industry – to our customers and to the public – and they are deserving of respect,” declare the authors of the BTRF report. If carriers don’t respect their own drivers, how,  Malysa asks rhetorically, can they expect their customers to? Trimac trains all levels of staff on driver relations, from fleet managers and dispatchers to shop technicians. “There are so many areas that touch the drivers and that’s what makes them so critical to our organization,” he says. “So, we’ve thrown down the gauntlet and actively engaged our drivers and management team to address the issue from a communications side so we’re not all just sitting back knowing where the issues are but no one wants to talk about it.”

There’s no denying, however, that most productive work hours are spent (and potentially wasted) away from the fleet terminal. How drivers are treated by their company’s customers and consignees, then, affects them just as much.  And it is in this area where shippers must have a roll – arguably, for their own good too.  Malysa has sent copies of the BRTF report as well as the recent Conference Board of Canada study on the driver shortage to his customer base and is in the process of engaging them about their thoughts on reducing downtime. It’s true many shippers are indifferent about the shortage – until, of course, it affects their freight – but there’s plenty who realize it’s in their best interest to promote careers in trucking. Plus, Malysa rightly points out, enlisting shippers to add their voices would help get the attention of more government policy makers.

Show, Don’t Just Tell

While it’s up to trucking to hold up a mirror to itself, the industry can’t do all the fixing alone. One way to get politicians to take an interest in the proposed solutions – such as a minimum standard of entry level, apprenticeship-like truck driver training and skilled certification – is to literally show them the industry. “They just don’t understand what it takes to sit behind a class 8 truck with a 140,000-lb load on the highway in heavy traffic – and do it for 70 hours a week,” says Malysa, who offers local politicians ride and drives so they can experience trucking first-hand. “It’s an eye opener. If more companies gave our provincial and federal politicians an opportunity to see what we really do and see the experiences of our drivers, that would definitely be helpful to the industry.”

Trimac’s proactive approach to recruitment and retention didn’t evolve overnight. Nor, considering drivers’ cynical nature, did everyone buy-in right away. “Sure there’s some of that ‘I’m from Missouri, show me that you really mean it,’” says Malysa. ‘But overall, I think drivers are really feeling loved in our organization. They are getting the message about what we’re trying to do because I think they see that we’re getting the message too.”

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