Friday, 5 May 2017

We Can't Attract More Drivers While Automating the Profession

This post firt appeared in the May, 2017 edition of Truck News

If we are going to attract young people to a career in the trucking industry we need more than just a new marketing plan preaching a set of motherhood values based on past performance and the freedom of the open road.

“When Robots Take Bad Jobs” is the headline of an article written in The Atlantic and published online February 27, 2017. It is worth a read. (see here)  It highlights everything that is wrong with the trucking industry in the United States from the perspective of a new hire. Our employment standards here in Canada are not the same as our neighbours to the south. Broadly speaking we have more protections in place for individuals entering the industry but the push towards ‘contractors’ over ‘employees’ continues to bleed across the border. This article paints a picture of an industry that wouldn’t be a young person’s first career choice.

The online trucking news site CCJ Digital published an article on March 17, 2017 (see here) about Celadon Tech that outlines how their lease operators are now able to haul for other carriers. Although it was written from the perspective of enabling owner operators and giving them more choice it is not difficult to read between the lines and see how this is a first step towards combating the uberization of the freight market. It moves dispatching into the driver’s seat. A different twist on automation.

Over at techcrunch.com on February 28, 2017 they report on Starsky Robotics. (see here) This is a trucking company that is operating trucks remotely. Experienced drivers are operating trucks from the office. Capabilities are limited at present but they have been in business for 2 years, have serious funding, and are expanding their operation. They have already done some driver-less highway haul and have plans to get drivers out of some trucks by the end of 2017. This is an example of using automation to have individual experienced drivers control multiple trucks from a central location.

These three examples highlight the multitude of changes the trucking industry is embroiled in at the present moment. We have a push from the top chasing after greater returns on investment through mergers & acquisitions, adoption of new technologies, and driving down employee costs. At the same time there is constant messaging about attracting new blood to the industry. So we’re telling people how great this industry is to work in while we continue to undermine driver compensation and look for new ways to make a driver’s job redundant.

Is it really as bad as it looks on the surface? No, not from the perspective of drivers that work for progressive companies that recognize the value of the synergy between well trained professional drivers and emerging technology.

This is where I pick up the drum I’ve been beating for the past several months. Training, certification, and a universal apprenticeship program. It’s time to realize the free market isn’t the be all and end all for solving the human resource problems at the driver level.

The way to attract new blood into our industry is to market a clear career path to prospective drivers. That means bringing together government, training institutions, trucking companies, and equipment manufacturers under the same roof. That’s a big ask but it has to be done and requires leadership from government to put forward legislation focused on long term growth rather than short term return on investment.


Technology is not going to replace drivers. It will reduce the number of drivers required. It will create specialized operators of heavy equipment on our roads that will require a higher level of training. The job of the driver is going to change. A universal method of training & certification is the only way to manage this change in a way that will minimize disruption across the trucking industry while defining the job of the truck operator in a rapidly changing market. That’s what we need to attract new blood.