Industry, gov’t support needed to keep truckers trucking goods

When store shelves become sparsely stocked and farm products are stalled at point of origin, it will be too late to sound an alarm.

So it’s time now to look carefully at the shortage of truck drivers across Canada — indeed, across North America — and figure out solutions.

Trucking firms across the West already report difficulty finding enough drivers to ship goods. They anticipate the situation will grow worse because few people are joining the industry.

A 2013 study that the Conference Board of Canada did for the Canadian Trucking Alliance estimates a national shortage of 25,000 to 33,000 for-hire truck drivers by 2020.

“With $17 billion in GDP directly tied to the for-hire trucking industry and the indirect impact being far greater, there’s little question a driver shortage of this size is a threat to the health and competitiveness of the Canadian economy, and this issue is something we as a nation should start thinking about,” said the board’s report.

Statistics are no better in the United States, where a 2014 report indicated that 35,000 more truck drivers beyond the current number are needed to carry freight.

Every agricultural good produced on prairie farms moves by truck at some point, so a shortage of drivers has dire consequences. Many transport companies say the problem has already reached a crisis point.

Changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, which as the name implies is but a temporary solution, have exacerbated the problem. Firms that have spent time and money recruiting skilled drivers from other countries are now losing those people because of program changes.

However, beyond that, trucking suffers from an unjustified reputation for attracting the uneducated or the unskilled; those who aren’t capable of doing other jobs. There’s also an impression that driving truck doesn’t pay well.

That is a stigma left over from yesteryear.

Today’s truck drivers earn $65,000 to $100,000 a year for jockeying thousands of pounds of freight down highways, through industrial parks and among oblivious commuters. Then they back those long and heavy trailers of freight into loading bays, often with only inches of clearance to spare.

Unskilled and uneducated? Think about it.

There are solutions, and some of them can be reasonably quickly achieved, given the proper impetus.

They can start with recognition of truck driving as a trade, with training and associated financial assistance offered at technical schools. It can cost up to $5,000 for training to obtain the necessary Class 1 licence, so many prospective drivers could benefit from funding assistance that would otherwise be a barrier.

Government and industry funding should also be applied to mentorship programs so newly trained drivers can receive the needed experience that emphasizes safety and qualifies employers for insurance coverage.

The industry itself must promote truck driving as a viable, respectable trade and make greater efforts to improve its image. New graduates working to earn a nest egg or pay a student loan are potential targets, as are women and workers seeking second careers.

Most of these recruits won’t ever traverse an ice road or, if properly trained, encounter “hell” along the television-fabled Highway Thru Hell in British Columbia’s Coquihalla Pass. The reality of the job is much simpler.

Agricultural producers arguably have more at risk from a trucker shortage than any other sector. They need to support all solutions that will keep goods moving safely from farm to city to tidewater and to consumer.

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