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A 'demographic tsunami' is about to make Canada's trucker shortage even worse

Canada's truck driver shortage will grow by half in less than a decade as the industry grapples with an aging workforce and difficulties recruiting young people and women.

A shortage of 22,000 drivers is on course to hit 34,000 across Canada by 2024

Mark Sydorchuk, 25, has wanted to be a truck driver ever since his dad let him take the wheel of his first big rig in an empty parking lot. 'I was in love after that,' he says. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Trucking runs in Mark Sydorchuk's blood.

His brother is a trucker. His father was a trucker. And ever since his dad let him back up his first big rig in an empty parking lot when he was 13, there was nothing else Sydorchuk wanted to do.  

"I couldn't really reach the pedals," the 25-year-old recalled. "It was scary but, at the same time, awesome. I was in love after that." 

He's not exaggerating. Everyone should love their job as much as Mark Sydorchuk. (Just watch the clip below.) 

Why trucking desperately needs new blood

Mark Sydorchuk is the young blood Canadian trucking, which as an industry has one of the oldest demographics in the country, desperately needs. 0:32

Young blood, like Sydorchuk, is something Canada's trucking industry desperately needs as it faces a serious shortage of qualified drivers that's only set to get worse. 

As of 2018, the Ontario Trucking Association (OTA) estimates that shortage could be as high as 22,000 vacant driver positions across the country. Those vacancies are expected to swell to 34,000 by 2024, thanks to an inability to recruit enough young people or women to replace aging drivers. 

"It's been described as a demographic tsunami," said Jon Blackham, the OTA's director of policy and public affairs.

"Trucking has one of the oldest workforces in the entire economy and, at the same time, there is a declining share of young people willing to get into the industry."

Cost, U.S. age restrictions are barriers to young people

That few young people seem to be willing to take up the trade might seem counterintuitive. Not only does trucking pay well — salaries range from $44,000 to $110,000 — it also offers those behind the wheel a life of travel, where they can get paid to see large swaths of North America. 

To become a qualified driver, students must complete an eight-week course, which costs about $8,000 and grants them a licence in the province where they're registered upon graduation.

Gus Rahim is the president of the Ontario Truck Driving School based in London, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

While it might sound attractive to someone looking to take a few years off between high school and college or university, very few young people ever sign up to take a course, according to Gus Rahim, the president of the Ontario Truck Driving School, based in London, Ont.

"A lot of the people getting into it are looking at a second career. They're a little older, anywhere from say 40 to 65, and these are the ones who are coming into the industry now."

Rahim said he believes the reason trucking has problems attracting young blood is partly due to the age restrictions in the United States, where drivers must be at least 21 to haul cargo across state lines. As a precaution, most American shippers want their drivers to be at least 23. 

Gus Rahim explains the financial barriers to young people becoming a trucker. 0:25

In Canada, where most drivers only have to be 18, that's a problem. Most truckers who starting their careers cut their teeth on long-haul jobs where crossing the U.S. border is common. It means any Canadian who starts at 18 has to wait at least three years to work in the United States. 

That wait is too long for most, Rahim said. 

"By the time they go from 18 to 21, a lot of them have already tried careers, they've tried something and maybe they've stuck with it and it's very hard to get them to change their mind at that time." 

The other barrier, according to Rahim, is cost. For young people, many of whom work minimum-wage jobs, the $8,000 tuition cost can be hard to come by.

In Ontario, where more than half of Canada's trucking companies are based, prospective students can't apply for loans under the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) to help pay their tuition — something Rahim wants to see the provincial government change.

Why trucking can't recruit women

The other problem facing trucking is the recruitment of women.

Historically, women have made up only three per cent of all truck drivers, according to the Ontario Trucking Association. More recent estimates put that figure anywhere from five to seven per cent, thanks to OTA networking events aimed at recruiting women and raising their profile within the industry.

Still, the OTA said the number of women behind the wheel isn't growing as fast as they would like. One reason for that might lie with women themselves, according to Carole Dore, an instructor with the Ontario Truck Driving School.

"I think it's because they don't think they can do it," she said. "Anybody can do this job — it's not just a man's world anymore."

Truck driving school instructor Carole Dore, who drove a truck for 11 years, explains why she thinks women are such a rarity in the trucking business. 0:26

Dore, a mother of three, worked as a truck driver for 11 years; she got her start driving a school bus for a year, then decided to move up to a bigger ride.

She did mostly local jobs, hauling freight between cities, sometimes taking cargo to Grand Rapids, Mich., or Toledo, Ohio. Her longest trips were 10 to 12 hours, leaving her enough time to see her children every day. 

"It was important for me to be there for them," she said. "I made it home every day."

Trucking is not always an easy life

Yet women like Dore remain more the exception than the rule when it comes to driving trucks, which might be because it's not a career for everyone, some drivers acknowledge.

Doug Groulx, an Ontario truck driver with 29 years experience on the road, said most people don't want the job because it takes you away from your family, including during holidays.

"We don't get Canada Day off if it falls on a Monday. You have to go to work," he said, citing one example. "Maybe they don't want to miss out on that."

For Groulx, that isn't a problem; he has no children and has never been married. But he said he has plenty of colleagues who are — and they depend on strong relationships with their partners. 

"I guess you have to work with your partner," he said. "You have to have that understanding that you're going to be gone for five days. 

"I wouldn't call it a hard life but you have to put your time in," he said. "I don't have any regrets."

To become a qualified driver, students must complete a course that can take up to two months and cost upward of $8,000. (CBC)

The same rings true for bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Mark Sydorchuk. As earnest as he is, even he understands that trucking isn't always easy.

"It's demanding. Not many people like that kind of job because you [have] got to sit there for hours and look out the window. It gets boring and lonely at times," he said. "Some people like the job, some people don't."

Yet we all still depend on trucks, with almost everything we own getting shipped by truck — something that could become problematic if the industry doesn't solve its driver shortage. But it's a problem that Sydorchuk believes could be solved easily.

"If loads start paying more, they'll see more drivers," he said. "While they're paying really cheap for loads out there, no one's going to want to do the job.

"They don't get paid enough." 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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