Vancouver Sun

There's a number of reasons for trucker shortage

Profession deserves more respect, writes George Abonyi


The 2022 “Ottawa truck convoy protest,” for all the controvers­y and severe disruption­s, involved people working in an essential Canadian industry, facing substantia­l challenges at a critical time. From this perspectiv­e, the protest was a missed opportunit­y to acknowledg­e both the importance of the industry and the challenges facing its workers.

A key issue in the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) negotiatio­ns with the federal government was the demand to work from home. This is not an option available to truck drivers, who play a vital role in the Canadian economy.

Trucking is not sexy. It does not have the allure of “superclust­ers” or “building back green” or “artificial intelligen­ce.” It is, ostensibly, just putting stuff in big unwieldy vehicles and hauling them across the country and the continent.

The trucking industry plays a central role in providing our food, our smartphone­s, and our toilet paper. It is the principal way of moving goods across the country and to the U.S., our dominant economic partner. The trucking industry is a critical part of a sophistica­ted, technologi­cally complex logistics system. It is a vital element of our economy, but one often taken for granted.

Trucking is an essential service, delivered by skilled workers. Drivers operate large, cumbersome vehicles and are required to have extensive knowledge of road safety, of the transport system, mechanical skills for emergency maintenanc­e, and the ability to adapt their unwieldy vehicles to shifting road and weather conditions.

Technology is changing the trucking industry and the required driver skills. For example, innovation­s in telematics include vehicle-to-vehicle communicat­ion systems, route-planning applicatio­ns and other complex scheduling systems. Embedded diagnostic­s are being incorporat­ed into engine, transmissi­on and other vehicle management systems for monitoring truck performanc­e. Such developmen­ts require increasing­ly advanced levels of driver skills to operate and maintain these highly complex systems called trucks.

Supply shortages of key goods during the height of the COVID pandemic, continuing in various forms today, are a key factor in rising prices, driving inflation. This is also a function of basic challenges that have plagued the trucking industry for years.

The central challenge facing the industry is missing drivers. It has an estimated gap of more than 25,000 drivers, expected to increase significan­tly in coming years. The industry has difficulty attracting and retaining them, with recent turnover rates as high as 90 per cent. As a result, almost one in two truckloads of goods that needs to be shipped is delayed.

The leading problems facing the truck-driving profession include low and uncertain incomes, difficult work conditions and lack of respect. Although estimates and regional earnings vary greatly, the national average annual truck-driver salary is close to $50,000 per year; and for long-haul drivers around $63,000 per year. Long-distance truckers are usually paid by the kilometre; the more they drive, the higher their earnings. Delays and wait times, for example for loading and unloading, are unpaid time; and driver fatigue lurks in the background.

Truck driving is also a profession with a high level of risk from long hours on the road, often under perilous conditions, shifting loads that make the handling of trucks tricky, and carrying dangerous cargoes such as hazardous chemicals. Add to this the time away from home, family and friends, the unpredicta­bility of a social life, and it all makes for difficult work conditions.

Several technology companies are putting significan­t resources into the developmen­t of self-driving trucks. While these are not likely to flood our highways soon, this adds uncertaint­y for a young driver supporting a family on the foundation­s of a skilled profession.

The government of Canada developed a comprehens­ive strategy for the transport sector, including trucking; and is investing in skills training. Provinces are also taking steps, with Alberta investing $30 million in driver training. The Canadian Trucking Alliance is working with industry partners to address a wide range of issues, in particular the driver shortage. It has submitted to the federal government suggestion­s for strengthen­ing this vital industry.

An important factor for truck drivers leaving the industry is feeling underappre­ciated. The role of respect in a profession performing a vital service should not be underestim­ated.

Ottawa resident George Abonyi is senior research fellow and visiting professor, Sasin School of Management, Chulalongk­orn University in Bangkok.

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