Truck stop: What's in store for the trucking industry

Low pay and long nights on the road haven't managed to throw the trucking industry off course, but an aging workforce might just slam the brakes on the industry's prospects.

“If we don’t act now, all of a sudden we’ll get to that point where there’s no bananas or no bread in the store,” warns Jeff Kirby. “In five years, everybody will be in an uproar, and it will take three to five years to get everything back to normal.”

Kirby, president of Ontario-based Altruck Idealease, a division of Kirby International Trucks Ltd., is referring to the alarming shortage of long-haul truck drivers. Rising fuel costs have already hit shippers; now, a dearth of truckers may drive costs up further. In January, Statistics Canada reported that 18% of Canadian truck drivers are 55 or older (compared with 13% of the general workforce). And according to the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council, the industry, which employs more than 500,000 people, needs to attract 30,000 to 45,000 new drivers annually, but in recent years has hired only between 5,700 and 18,100.

Relatively low pay and extended periods on the road keep the profession low on the radar of young job seekers. Most insurance companies won’t cover those under 25 for cross-border driving. And immigration restrictions prevent some foreign-trained drivers from working here. The problem is worst in the for-hire sector, which handles much of the long-haul traffic. And it’s beginning to affect business. “It’s probably fair to say that the days of calling your shipper and saying ‘I need it there tomorrow’ are over,” says Bruce Richards, president of the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada. “A lot of manufacturers take raw materials on a just-in-time delivery, but if you don’t have the capacity or supply, you’re going to have to do some speculating and ordering in advance of your norm.”

The time to act is running out. “The people in the supply chain are already starting to see the cracks in the armour,” says Jim Mickey, general manager for Coastal Pacific Xpress, a for-hire firm based in Surrey, B.C., that handles fresh produce in North America for major retailers. “The smartest of them are starting to put contingency plans in place.”

Mickey compares the transportation system to an electrical power grid that’s overloaded but still functioning. “There are days that the critical product is so close to not happening that if the rest of the people in the equation were aware of it, bells would be ringing,” he says. “If we were a power plant, on some days we’d be running in the red zone.” For the client, adds Mickey, “the only defence is to create an alliance with a carrier. You pay better than anyone else; you create a stickiness to your company so the turnover that affects other people doesn’t affect you.”

The problem extends south of the border. A report prepared last year for the American Trucking Associations pointed to an existing shortage of about 20,000 long-haul, heavy-duty truck drivers. Without “substantial market adjustments,” the shortfall is predicted to hit 111,000 by 2014. “In the last few years, we have seen trucks and cargo sitting idle in many terminals for want of drivers,” says Gary Petty, president and CEO of the U.S. National Private Truck Council. “If transportation is a critical component of a company’s business, they need to have a fallback plan for getting their product to market. It wasn’t very long ago that a shipper could call all the shots; that’s a big sea change, and it looks like it’s going to be with us for the foreseeable future.”

Various Canadian trucking organizations met with government agencies and training institutions in February to discuss the issue, and are working in partnership to address it. But it may take years to turn the driver shortage around. How many Canadians will this affect? “All the ones that eat,” says Mickey.