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EDITORIAL: Recent TFW Changes Reinforce Truck Driving as Low Skill – and That’s Wrong

By: David Bradley

Regardless of whether yours is a carrier that participates in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), or whether you agree with the program or not, recently introduced changes should be of concern to the entire Canadian trucking industry. In the grand scheme of things, a relatively small number of carriers participate in the TFWP. But, for those that do, they will say that it is the last remaining way for them to get idled trucks moving for a period of time when all efforts to recruit Canadians have been exhausted. The TFWP was already expensive and cumbersome before the recent changes. Now it is even it even more costly and restrictive to the point where some carriers will be forced to abandon the program altogether. This could have significant implications for those carriers and their customers.

But, the more universal problem underscored by the recent changes to the TFWP – and why everyone in the industry should be concerned — is that they reinforce the notion that truck driving, as an occupation, has about the same standing as a burger flipper in the government’s eyes. For years, CTA has — given the level of skill, training, planning, administration and legal compliance required to do the job — objected to the classification of truck drivers as unskilled under the National Occupational Classification (NOC), which is the underpinning for government policy on which occupations are eligible for training funds, immigration, and programs like the TFWP.

In 2009, a research report conducted by Hiscott Consulting for the last review of the NOC by the federal department now called Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), recommended occupation 7411(Truck Drivers) be re-classified from Skill Level C (low skilled) to Skill Level B. For reasons that were never fully explained, that recommendation was not adopted.

The implications of this misclassification of truck drivers are significant. The trucking industry, hauls 90% of all consumer products and foodstuffs and almost 60% by value of Canada’s trade with the United States. It is facing a chronic shortage of drivers which the Conference Board of Canada forecasts will reach as high as 33,000 (mostly of long-haul tractor-trailer drivers) by 2020.

The industry has been put in an untenable situation. Labelling the occupation is low skill creates huge barriers and disincentives to people who might otherwise consider driving in Canada for a living. On the one hand the federal government is telling employers in the trucking sector they should be hiring Canadians first to fill driver vacancies (which everyone agrees with). But, on the other hand, by classifying the occupation as low skill, Canadians who might consider becoming truck drivers are excluded (through key programs like the Canada Jobs Grant) from funding for the training they will need to become employable. Low skilled occupations are also at the bottom of the priority list when it comes to immigration. Other than in a few provinces with receptive Provincial Nominee Programs (where the TFWP can be a stepping stone to permanent residence status and a path to citizenship), qualified, experienced truck drivers who would love to work in Canada and become Canadians have no chance of doing so.

The recent changes to the TFWP serve to exacerbate the situation. In one sense ESDC seems to acknowledge the problems that are inherent in the current classification system for certain occupations by introducing the concept of high/low wage occupations as opposed to low/high skilled workers. The determination of whether an occupation is low or high wage is conducted by comparing the median hourly wage for all occupations in a province to the median hourly wage for that occupation in the province. The result of this is that in all but two provinces (British Columbia and Alberta) the occupation of truck driver is deemed to be low wage. (Quebec is exempt from all the changes to the TFWP).

This is not about whether truck drivers should be paid more. The CTA Blue Ribbon Task Force has already acknowledged that industry compensation packages need to be as competitive — or better — than that available in other occupations and sectors in order to attract and retain drivers. Part of the problem is that most tractor-trailer drivers at least are paid by the mile. In addition, all types of truck drivers are lumped together in the NOC. As usual trucking does not fit into the typical 9-to-5 office/factory world that most government analysis and data is based on. Trucking complicates things. CTA has proposed that tractor-trailer drivers should have their own classification distinct from drivers of other vehicles.

While the tractor-trailer/straight truck comparison may not apply in all cases for the most part tractor-trailer drivers tend to earn higher wages, are far less likely to be paid by the hour, work longer hours, drive longer distances, require a different class of license, etc., than most straight truck drivers. There are certainly straight truck drivers in specialized sectors who would earn wages as high as or even higher than some tractor-trailer drivers. Nonetheless, separating the two is a superior methodology to the one currently in use.

Last year, CTA asked the Minister of ESDC, Jason Kenney, if he would consider moving up the timetable and accelerating a review of the NOC for truck drivers. (CTA and the provincial associations are also seeking mandatory entry level training to a national occupational standard currently being developed by Trucking HR Canada with assistance from ESDC). With the recently announced changes to the TFWP, a review of the NOC to ensure the occupation of truck driver, or the various types of truck drivers are properly classified, is even more critical today than it has ever been.

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