The only thing keeping the average Albertan out of the cab of an 18-wheeler is a small piece of paper.
Henry Van Steenbergen thinks it should take more than a Class 1 licence to climb behind the wheel of a semi-trailer truck.
Van Steenbergen is president of the Transportation Training and Development Association, an industry organization dedicated to increasing safety standards in the trucking and busing industries. It’s been trying to do so through the establishment of training programs for new drivers.
“Currently in Alberta, as well as anywhere in Canada, there is no standard of training that you must complete in order to get your Class 1 licence,” he said. “As long as you’re able to pass a written test and a road test, you can get your Class 1 licence.”
A professional driver training program was offered through Red Deer College as a three-year pilot project, but it was discontinued in June 2009. Van Steenbergen said the problem was scarce provincial dollars.
“Alberta Transportation and the Alberta government have been very supportive of us in all of this,” he said. “They have restraints.”
The Transportation Training and Development Association and the Alberta Motor Transport Association — which represents the province’s highway transportation industry — are urging their members to let the Alberta government know that they want the program resurrected.
Provincial funding is essential, said Van Steenbergen, pointing out that the cost of training each student is about $10,000. That’s too much for trucking companies and trainees to pay, especially considering that students are without income during the 12-week program.
“What we’re doing is shooting for a tuition of roughly $3,000 per student so that, between the company and the student, they can afford to pay the tuition.”
Cliff Soper, the Blackfalds-based executive director of the Transportation Training and Development Association, said his organization has been talking to Alberta Transportation, Advanced Education and Technology, Employment and Immigration, and Aboriginal Relations about funding the program on a shared basis. He’s optimistic, given the improved economy and growing need for trained drivers, and is hopeful a funding commitment will come in the new year.
Thereafter, it would take six to nine months for the program to restart.
Trent Bancarz, an Alberta Transportation spokesperson, said his department is trying to find a solution.
“We’re supportive of anything that enhances the training of professional drivers and enhances their education.”
In addition to involving other departments, Alberta Transportation is looking at industry participation in covering the cost of the program, he said.
“It’s a matter of getting all the partners together.”
One problem the Red Deer College program encountered was students who received job offers and dropped out before completing their training.
“It kind of sabotaged the program results and the good that the program was doing,” said Van Steenbergen.
Alberta’s hot economy and the shortage of truckers exacerbated the situation, added Soper.
He thinks the program would perform much better if it returns. Trucking companies are being asked to support the practicum component and give preference to certified drivers when hiring. Insurers have also agreed to credit successful students with driving experience.
Soper and Van Steenbergen stressed the importance of comprehensive training for professional drivers. This even includes life management skills for truckers who find themselves on the road and away from their families.
“Trucking is a difficult job,” said Van Steenbergen, who operated a trucking company for many years before selling out in 2007 and starting Northeast Safety Consulting in Edmonton.
He pointed out that demand for trucking services is increasing, while many truckers are growing old and will soon retire. It’s been estimated that Canada is already 50,000 drivers short of what it needs, he said.
“So the problem is going to be an ever-growing problem if we don’t address it.”