Trucker shortage has industry scrambling, but lifestyle a hard sell

New Brunswick trucking companies say they're struggling to fill jobs that pay an average of $55,000 per year because they can't find drivers.

Industry says wages on the rise, but long-haul drivers are harder to find

Al Whittaker, owner of Try Al's Trucking Company, says it has been difficult finding new additions to his aging crew. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

New Brunswick trucking companies say they're struggling to fill jobs that pay an average of $55,000 per year because they can't find drivers.

"People don't understand how important it is," said Al Whittaker, owner of Try Al's Trucking Company in Saint John.

"Everything you get, comes by truck. Everything."

Whittaker started his company more than 30 years ago and in recent years has found it difficult to recruit new blood.

Al Whittaker, owner of Try Al's Trucking Company, says the big transport companies are not immune to the driver shortage. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

"My best driver that I've got right now is 74 years old," he said. "And he runs max hours every week.

"I have another driver that works part-time for me. He's 72  ... and we've got a guy who's 64."

Whittaker said one large transport company has been calling on him to help deliver their freight because they're short on drivers, too.  

"They called me Friday night. They had 81 loads of groceries that weren't covered around the province."

Compensation varies

While most in the industry agree that drivers' salaries are rising, there's a wide range of numbers thrown around.  

Online job postings aimed at New Brunswickers offered $50,000 - $70,000 per year for long haul jobs based out of Florenceville, Woodstock and Sussex,

The Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association says the average pay for a long-haul driver is more like $55,000.

But some driving schools suggest that $80,000 is a realistic start.

"The wages have been going up about 10 per cent per year to the point where entry level drivers who are willing to go long haul are making in the neighbourhood of $100,000 a year," said John Beaudry, founder of Transport Training Centres of Canada, which has a school in Moncton.

"Even with that kind of money we don't have enough drivers to satisfy demand and trucks are sitting parked.

"It's gone from a driver shortage crisis to, I would label it, cataclysmic conditions," he said from Sudbury.

Lifestyle: A hard sell

Driving instructor Brian Callender, says he drove long haul for years before he had a family.

"It was fantastic," he said during a break from teaching in Moncton. "You got to travel ... and get paid for it and you were in a different city every day."

Brian Callender, a driving instructor with Transport Training Centres of Canada in Moncton, speaks with student Kevin Campbell. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

Now, he said he coaches baseball twice a week and likes to stay close to home for his seven-year-old son.

He said some of his students feel the same way.

Kevin Campbell, 27, took out a line of credit to help pay the $8,000 to $10,000 cost of his course, but he said he doesn't want to be a long-haul trucker.

He hopes to stay in New Brunswick as a heavy equipment operator.

Kevin Campbell is studying to become a truck driver in Moncton — a welcomed sight for an industry grappling with a driver shortage. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

"It requires a special type of person to be on the road for a long time," he said.

"I'd like to stick local."

New Brunswick takes immigrant drivers

New Brunswick's Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour said the province selected 390 foreign national truck drivers between 2015-2017.

Some came through the provincial nominee program. Other applications were endorsed under the Atlantic Immigration Pilot project.

Donnelly Farms in Lansdowne, Carleton County, hired some of them.

The company's recruiter, Robert Trites, said he's taking drivers from the United Kingdom, Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine and South Africa.

He said it's great when they stay, but sometimes they don't.

"One of our biggest problems is drivers come in, they stay long enough to get their clearance here," Trites said. "They get their residency, then they take off to Ontario or out west, someplace."

Donnelly Farms has 45 trucks, many of them "reefers."  Those are refrigerated carriers that the company uses to move Maritime produce down the Eastern Seaboard.

It's unclear how many vacancies are in New Brunswick currently, but a national industry association says there could be as many as 48,000 drivers needed by 2024. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)

In New England, drivers pick up freight for Ontario and Quebec. Then they pick up cargo for Sobeys and Loblaws and return to the Maritimes.

Trites said his drivers often work 10 to 12 consecutive days, followed by three to four days off.

"So it's not a real attractive industry at this point in time in terms of time away," he said.

"Drivers in the younger generation don't want to be gone from home ... some of them, not even a week."

The Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association said it's trying to raise awareness about work opportunities in the industry. It has hired a liaison officer who will start visiting schools and attending events to talk about the jobs.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance is predicting a shortage of as many as 48,000 drivers in Canada by 2024.

The Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association could not quantify how many jobs are currently vacant in New Brunswick.

About the Author

Rachel Cave

Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.