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David O’Neill began driving big rigs for Kriska Transportation more than five years ago. (Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail)
David O’Neill began driving big rigs for Kriska Transportation more than five years ago. (Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail)

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With shortage of drivers, this trucker loves his job on the road Add to ...

Just in from Chicago with a truckload of Tang fruit-drink products, tractor-trailer driver David O’Neill is about the hit the highway again. He is headed east, to Brockville, Ont., this time, “and who knows where I will go from there?”

After spending the first five years of his working life in a factory, earning good money but suffocating from boredom, Mr. O’Neill loves life as a trucker.

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He relishes the pace, the variety, the professional development opportunities offered by his employer, Kriska Transportation, and – as importantly – the scheduling that ensures he is home every weekend with his young family in Barrie, Ont.

Struggling to recruit and retain enough skilled commercial truck drivers to keep their rigs on the road, industry leaders are engaged in a concerted effort to make trucking a more appealing career choice.

The Conference Board of Canada, in a study conducted on behalf of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, projects a shortfall of 25,000 drivers or more by 2020, and cites work-life balance as a key change for industry recruiters as they replace the retiring generation of truckers.

“More drivers are objecting to the lifestyle of the long-haul driver in particular,” the Conference Board found. “In the past, there were those who sought out the type of ‘cowboy’ lifestyle that long-haul driving brought along with it … Fewer younger people are willing to embrace a lifestyle where they have to be away from home for days or weeks at a time.”

There is no getting around the fact that trucking involves “lifestyle compromises,” said Mark Seymour, president of Kriska, which is based in Prescott, Ont., and delivers consumer goods throughout North America.

But for those who are qualified and willing to make the commitment, “you will never be out of work,” he said.

“It is tough to find good jobs these days, and the average truck driver can easily make $60,000 or $65,000 a year,” Mr. Seymour said. Kriska’s top tractor-trailer drivers can pull in upward of $80,000 annually.

While it is difficult to attract young workers, trucking is an occupation well-suited to mid-career workers who want to retrain and make a job change once their children are older, he said.

“Where we have the most [recruiting] success is with the second-occupation folks. They need to continue to work, they are a little more mature and a little more grounded in their life.”

Here’s a look at the demand, the job and how to get there:

 

The educators

At Humber College’s Transportation Training Centre in Toronto, graduates of the tractor-trailer AZ program have a 96-per-cent employment rate. In addition to the background on mechanical and regulatory issues provided at school, graduates “need the ability to make very clear, quick and correct decisions when you are on the road, so it is not really a job that everybody can do,” said Rick Mikula, program liaison officer at the centre.

“We get people who are in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs looking to advance their careers, we get unemployed people coming through re-employment programs and we get people who are seeking major change in life – people like bank managers, corporate vice-presidents, engineers and people like that who no longer want to pursue a career in what they are doing,” he said.

McKenzie College in Sydney, N.S., recently had a high-school substitute teacher enrolled in its trucking program and often retrains military personnel. “We have had a number of students who have gone to university, received a degree and, unable to find work, have decided to retrain in a field they can make a living at,” said McKenzie College president Todd Graham. McKenzie College’s truck program grads are in demand across Canada, particularly in Alberta, he said.

 

The employers

Kriska recruits heavily from the Humber’s program, and then provides what Mr. Seymour calls “finishing school” – putting new hires through an intensive six-week company course, with one-on-one instruction during road trips and in-class orientation sessions. “Many [employers] are in a situation where we have to hire inexperienced people because there is just not enough experience out there. Many of us … have schools that we work with.”

Mr. Seymour is chairman of the Canadian Trucking Alliance’s task force on the driver shortage. Industry leaders are pressing various levels of government to designate commercial trucking as a skilled trade, which would establish more rigorous mandatory training standards across the country and raise the profile of trucking as a career.

 

The driver

Mr. O’Neill landed a job manufacturing auto parts, right out of high school. “It was good money at the time, but there was no room for improvement.” Five-and-a-half years ago, he quit the factory job, found a good training school, landed at Kriska, and “never looked back.”

He now takes new hires on the road for one-on-one training sessions in the 18-wheeler, travelling primarily through the United States, sleeping in the rig at rest stops.

“I have a fridge, a microwave, I bring my own food from home, so it is pretty much an apartment on wheels that I bring around with me.”

It is stressful for new drivers as they accustom themselves to the vehicles, the satellite communications system and other in-truck technology, the pickup and delivery deadlines, the traffic, the cargo-handling requirements.

“We ship almost everything and anything,” Mr. O’Neill said.

“We mostly deal with the food and food-related industry, so it is a lot of perishable and non-perishable items … a can of soup, you don’t really have to do much to, but if you have a load of lilies and they are on a refrigerated truck, you have to constantly monitor the temperature and make sure it is not too hot or too cold … It is really time-sensitive, you pretty much have to go directly to the customer to get it unloaded,” he said.

“I have a blast every day, every day out here is a new adventure,” Mr. O’Neill said.

“At first I found it really stressful, trying to make delivery times and that … One of the things I say to my new drivers if they get stressed out, I tell them it’s just another day in the office … If something happens, you continue on with your load, you take it one day at a time.”

Training

“Too many companies are pushing people out the door with a licence who are unemployable because they don’t have any level of training and, certainly, they don’t have experience,” said Mark Seymour, president of Kriska Transportation, based in Prescott, Ont.

Humber College’s Transportation Training Centre in Toronto gives drivers instruction on air-brake systems and safety inspections, pre-trip inspections, defensive driving, route planning and accident procedures. It also covers cargo/load security, transportation of dangerous goods, border crossing, and regulatory and legal requirements in Canada and the United States. Drivers also get 120 hours of in-vehicle training.

McKenzie College is holding a job fair on Friday, April 26.

And those interested in trucking can check out at the industry’s recently launched site: www.drivershortage.ca.

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