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The Right Direction with Drivers

So with the new year almost upon us I guess I should be looking ahead, but I'm at something of a loss as to what we might find. Lately it seems that nothing's predictable, that it's all up for grabs. That's overstating the case, but it clearly takes little to force changes in our course these days. Plain old worries are easier to chart.

In the freight-hauling world a few key issues are worrisome to fleet owners and managers, according to a recent American survey that's probably matched more or less by Canadian thinking.

The American Transportation Research Institute, an arm of the American Trucking Associations, found that carriers are most concerned about the effects of the 'Compliance, Safety, Accountability' regime -- we know it as simply CSA. That finding was published in October, but a subsequent survey unveiled this month found that its impact has been smaller than was once feared. At least in terms of turfing marginal drivers from the industry. As much as 20 percent of the driving force, it was thought, wouldn't be able to meet the more rigorous CSA safety compliance standards. In fact, says the latest examination of fleet experience, only five percent of drivers at most have been rendered unemployable.

Hours-of-service changes seem more likely to worry Canadians (they're second on the U.S. list of concerns) but I expect the economy is biggest of all here in the frozen north. It's third on the American list but right at the top for carriers recently surveyed by the Ontario Trucking Association.

The shortage of appropriately skilled drivers is a continuing continental issue, though perhaps more so in the U.S. because turnover rates are frequently around the 100 percent mark down there, more likely to be under 20 percent here.

Misguided (in my opinion) HOS rules are beyond our control, the economy completely beyond any mortal's influence, and I'm not even going to say a word about the price of fuel. I don't see much ground being gained on the driver shortage without a major overhaul of this industry's fundamental structure, though I'll qualify that one in a minute.

So let me move to the personal, where the ground is a little more solid, the future a lot more predictable. By my rough count, this is about the 500th editorial I've written in the course of 34 magazine years, not counting the odd blog. By next December, I'll have offered at least another dozen opinions, another dozen perspectives on our trucking world. And I'm not a particularly opinionated guy.

I certainly haven't catalogued all those editorials but I'll bet that a good number of them — more than any other single subject — have dealt somehow with drivers and the driving life, including owner-operators, of course. Next year will be no different, I can easily predict. I think drivers remain nearly as under-appreciated and poorly understood as ever. By themselves as much as by anyone else.

That said, I was encouraged this year by a couple of developments, both coming from the Canadian Trucking Alliance, and they could change things for the better. If it isn't too late to make a difference on the driver front.

The first of those was a report last June from the CTA Blue Ribbon Task Force on the Driver Shortage, which was formed in 2011 to solve the problem. This report doesn't have all the answers but it acknowledges that the "traditional 'piece work' pay system" is a main cause of the driver shortage because it "places the burden of inefficiencies of the freight system created by others onto the backs of drivers."

Further, the report says that driver compensation packages "are no longer competitive with other industries."

I know, I know, some of us could have saved them the effort if only they'd asked. Like 10 or even more years ago. At least now, though I've seen only one thing change in the meantime, the issue is on the table publicly.

The change, and I like this one, was the introduction last summer of the first program of retirement savings plans for drivers and other employees as well as owner-operators. The program is being offered through Standard Life by the CTA and all provincial trucking associations with the exception of Quebec, where the association has some legal and contractual hurdles to deal with first.

As we launch ourselves into 2013, that's reason to be encouraged. It won't attract hordes of people to trucking on its own, but it's a step in the right direction. And we can only move step by step.

 
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