Empty cabs plague Canada’s trucking sector

Dramatic protests, originally centred around vaccine mandates for truckers, may have grabbed a lot of recent headlines.

But the real problem in trucking has been overlooked. There simply aren’t enough drivers out there, and there haven’t been for years.

The trucking sector was already raising the alarm over trucker shortages prior to the pandemic. The industry had already expected to ultimately hit a 55,000-job shortfall, groups like the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) said. While they’re not there yet, current numbers have done little to reassure.

The latest update by Trucking HR Canada put that labour gap at a record 22,900 jobs as of the third quarter of 2021. At the same time, job vacancy had reached eight per cent, another record for the sector and the second highest of any industry in Canada.

Why it matters: Everything — including your products and inputs — move by truck. And without a driver behind the wheel, they’re not going anywhere.

Barry Prentice, professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business and former director of that school’s Transport Institute, says driver shortages have been an issue throughout his 30-year career studying transportation.

“Everything starts in a truck. Everything ends in a truck. It’s a critical industry to our economy and we cannot just afford to be cavalier and say, oh, it’ll all sort itself out.” – Barry Prentice, University of Manitoba. photo: Supplied

“Everything starts in a truck. Everything ends in a truck. It’s a critical industry to our economy and we cannot just afford to be cavalier and say, oh, it’ll all sort itself out,” he said. “I think the government does need to take a hard look at this.”

On Jan. 25, with trucking protests hitting the headlines, a joint statement from the federal ministers for labour, employment, workforce development and disability inclusion and the president of the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) noted the labour strain the trucking sector has seen due to the pandemic.

The statement announced no new programs or policy changes, saying only that industry and the government had been and would continue to be in regular dialogue. The same statement noted that action was needed on labour shortages and supply chain constraints, but offered no details.

“These issues are not easy to solve, and they must be addressed by long-term strategies that will achieve real and lasting results,” the statement said.

Days later, in the wake of the National Supply Chain Summit, the CTA released a list of asks to the federal government. There must be more effort to attract workers to the industry, it said, as well as more support for training and changes to domestic and international border infrastructure.

The industry group urged the government to help “amplify” the CTA’s three-year public relations campaign announced last year. At the same time, it suggested, there should be a fund accessible by “known employers,” to take the financial sting out of pre-licensing and on-the-job training.

There is also, the CTA argued, a role for labour from overseas. The industry group pitched the creation of a known employer program that would help streamline industry access to temporary foreign workers and other immigration.

Job search shift

Those asks echo many of the issues underpinning the trucker shortage, according to Prentice.

The trucking industry has seen a significant shift in demographics, he noted, with the sector becoming the job of choice for more and more newly arrived Canadians.

Like the CTA, then, Prentice suggested that immigration may hold some help for the labour problem.

“It’s a job they can get when they come here and, in fact, the industry has been proactive in sourcing truck drivers, favouring that as an immigration position,” he said. “It can certainly do more of that.”

A policy could, for example, actively court potential new Canadians with existing driving experience, he said.

Bill Rempel of Steve’s Livestock Transport also says he has seen increasing demand for trucking loaded on an increasingly shaky foundation.

He, like Prentice and the CTA, cited the need for the “immigration pool,” to grow.

“There’s been an aging population that has got out of that and it hasn’t necessarily been attractive enough for those next generations to get into that,” he said. “There’s been some immigration. There’s been some local drivers who have got into it, but there hasn’t been enough in infrastructure or support to essentially feed that (demand) growth that’s been there the last number of years.”

Back to school

Training accessibility and affordability present yet another problem.

“It’s fairly expensive,” Rempel said. “There needs to be funding from the different levels of governments across the provinces… for driver training.”

Training itself, according to Prentice, has also become more involved as trucks become more technologically sophisticated and administration needs increase. There is, for example, more paperwork and recording, he noted, and cost and number of available student spaces for those programs likely has an impact on how many drivers hit the road.

“There is, for sure, a longer training period to become a truck driver and that’s something that people have to come up with their own wherewithal to do that,” he said.

While the provincial government did not make anyone available for an interview, a spokesperson noted that the province does fund trucker training through the Skills Development Program, under the Department of Economic Development, Investment and Trade.

Programs, by necessity, must be rigorous, Prentice acknowledged, pointing to the tragic 2018 Humbolt Broncos bus crash, which was caused when a commercial semi-truck driver failed to yield. Still, he suggested there may yet be room within that rigour to review trucking school programs.

There is also, according to Manitoba Pork Council general manager Cam Dahl, the issue of specialization.

Live animal transport is a skilled subsector within the trucking industry, he noted, further limiting the labour pool.

They “need to know how to care for animals and need to know how to care for animals if something goes wrong… whether it’s the training programs or communication, I don’t think there’s a magic bullet, but I do know that it’s something that has to be a priority for both industry as well as government,” he said.

Manitoba’s hog sector has reported significant disruption in recent weeks to feed and live animal shipments, particularly around soymeal coming out of the U.S., as well as staffing issues as the impacts of COVID-19 on employees compound increased labour needs for truckers and wash stations as the sector combats its own outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea.

Image overhaul

Recent protests and border crossing plugs have done little to help the image of an industry already suffering from a serious image problem, Prentice also said.

He personally, questions the efficacy of the vaccine mandates imposed by the government, and argues that the policy exaggerated “an already short situation” when it comes to driver labour.

That view echoes arguments within the trucking sector, which argued that social distancing inherent in the trucking profession made for little benefit to public health,

At the same time, Prentice described the protests as, “very disappointing, because it’s spreading this notion that drivers are not really a professional, sophisticated group, which they are,” he said.

He worried, therefore, that protests would dissuade potential employees who do not wish to be associated with the actions of protesters.

A general lack public awareness into the trucking sector also haunts it’s ability to fill support roles, he added.

Much like agriculture jobs go far beyond farming, Prentice argued that jobs in the trucking sector extend far past the semi cab — a fact often overlooked by Canadians considering a potential career path.

Lifestyle overhaul

The industry’s most significant barrier, however, may be selling its lifestyle — often seen as simply not attractive enough, nor lucrative enough to overcome the inconveniences involved, Prentice acknowledged.

“A new Canadian coming in without many choices, it’s a great opportunity, but for the average Canadian who’s going through high school and so on, they look at that and say, ‘Gee, I don’t want to be away from my family all the time,’” he said.

Driver wages are pressured downwards thanks to the “hypercompetitive” industry, as shippers shop around for lowest freight rates, he noted.

Living conditions on the road, likewise, can be less than optimal.

Lifestyle issues came to a head early in the pandemic, when restrictions limited trucker access to full-service truck stops. Truckers at the time reported limited ability to access appetizing food or hygienic facilities.

Even outside pandemic conditions, however, Prentice noted that lack of amenities has been an issue, particularly on this side of the international border.

“The infrastructure in the U.S. is much better than it is here in Canada,” he said.

“For example, drive the interstate yourself and you can see there’s pull-offs for trucks to go, there’s stations there. I don’t recall seeing a whole lot of those between here and Calgary,” he added.

Lack of amenities is also a bone of contention for the drivers of Steve’s Livestock Transport.

“On the Canadian side, there’s not a lot of truck stops,” Rempel said. “There isn’t a lot of that infrastructure that is there to make it easier when truckers are on the road for extended periods of time.”

He argued that the sector therefore needs a boost of government investment in road infrastructure and amenities.

Highway infrastructure also hit the limelight last week, following a Feb. 24 crash between Brandon and Virden that involved 20 semi-trucks and several passenger vehicles. The crash sparked conversation around available resources for winter maintenance and trucker frustration with road conditions.

“Anything that could help to make the lifestyle more positive has to be considered, I think,” Prentice said.

Who’s got the ball?

Jurisdiction may be one complicating factor when it comes to addressing the shortfall.

Although a federal responsibility, much of the responsibility for transportation has been delegated to the provinces, Prentice noted, leaving a patchwork of jurisdictions nominally overseen at a national level.

Solutions proposed by the CTA, Rempel and Prentice could cover a multitude of government departments at either the federal or provincial level.

“There’s different issues at different places,” Prentice noted. “So trying to get everybody to pull together is not always that easy.”

Some of that could be taken on by groups like the Council of Ministers Responsible for Transportation and Highway Safety, an intergovernmental body made up of federal, provincial and territorial transportation ministers, he said.

The Keystone Agricultural Producers, meanwhile, lumps the problem in with other labour gaps linked to agriculture.

“This is highlighting a larger conversation when it comes to the need for skilled labour in agriculture,” Graham Schellenberg, communications and government relations manager with KAP, said. “Certainly these are two separate industries, but agriculture… is wide ranging. Transportation is a big part of that.”

The association has a labour committee and has been in conversation with local commodity groups, other provincial and federal farm groups and the government on that larger issue, KAP has said.

“It’s going to take a co-ordinated effort — this challenge, which is labour,” Schellenberg said.

Par : Alexis Stockford (03/03/2022)

Source : manitobacooperator.ca

Photo : rawpixel.com