ETOBICOKE, Ont. — Well, it finally happened.
After one-and-a-half years working in the trucking industry as a journalist, I drove my first commercial truck. It was everything I’d thought it’d be – difficult, frightening, bumpy – and more.
My decision to get into a cab and shift some gears came in light of the hot-button issue the industry has been talking about since last October – mandatory entry-level training. Sure, the news was a long time coming, and it took a major news investigation to get the government to move forward with the legislation, but it’s coming, slowly but surely. I wanted to know what newbies in the industry went through to get their commercial licence legitimately, and not through the $999 licence mills across the GTA.
I reached out to a notable driving instructor, Michele Joslin, of Humber College to help me in my venture. She has been in the industry for close to 30 years and has been involved in shaping MELT.
She has been employed with fleets in years past, teaching experienced drivers, but her job at Humber now is to teach new drivers and get them into the industry as professionals at the college’s Transportation Training Centre, which offers ministry-approved training programs with a minimum of 200 hours of instruction both in-cab and in the classroom.
Joslin started her career with Humber in 2006 and says her choice of going from driver to instructor was one she made to benefit the entire trucking community.
“I didn’t become an instructor because I don’t like driving – I became an instructor because I’m hoping that with every class that comes through here I can motivate at least one new driver to earn the designation of a professional,” she said.
Classrooms normally have between 12-16 students at any given time. Joslin said because of the declining economy and jobs available, the age of her students is steadily increasing and it’s what she finds most difficult about her job.
“When you’re dealing with adults, they don’t learn the same way that children do,” she said. “Children are sponges…any information you give them, they soak it up and they take it and they run with it. An adult needs to test it. An adult needs to explain to their own brain why it works.”
It’s why so many people have trouble using the stick shift, she explained.
Gulp. I’ve never used a stick shift.
“They’re so used to ramming the clutch all the way down like they do in their car, and they do the same thing in the truck, when they really only need to press it down an inch.It goes against what they’ve already got ingrained,” she said.
I’ll admit I was extremely nervous to step up into the truck. Before this, the largest vehicle I had driven was a 1995 Nissan Pathfinder my parents so kindly bought for me while I was still in high school. The Pathfinder may as well have been a Mini Cooper in comparison to the 2015 International ProStar I was getting behind the wheel of.
I got into the truck that was sans trailer and watched carefully as Joslin pulled out of the parking lot and onto a quiet industrial road a few blocks from the Humber Training Centre. Her legs and arms were moving a lot more than mine do when I drive, making me more nervous. Our right turn out of the parking lot was a lot more bumpy than I thought, which she explained was completely normally.
“It’s only because we’re not pulling anything,” she said. “These are designed to haul so when they don’t, it’s not the smoothest ride.”
I asked her what most students have the most difficulty with upon entering the program and her answer was surprising, yet simple.
“To be honest with you, we always have to go back to the basics of driving,” she said. “Everyone thinks that they are a very good driver. And when we get into the truck it’s like they need to be reminded of the rules of the road again. So many don’t know the basics.”
To teach me how to drive (even if it was for only 30 minutes) Joslin used the same method she does for her students, only in a more condensed time frame.
“I try to encompass as many of the methods of learning as possible,” she said.
On the first day the students get a handout on the syllabus that goes through everything they will be doing through the program’s entire course. (She gave me a copy to skim during our interview). Then, before any driving component, she demonstrates the proper procedure, and next, they attempt to do it themselves.
I’m watching her intently as she gets to a side road and puts the truck in park and then asks if I’m ready.
“Um, I guess so…” I answer half-excitedly.
“You’ll be fine,” she said. “You just have to remember to double tap on the clutch at the same time you shift the gears. I liken it to dancing because you have to coordinate so many of your body parts.”
If Joslin had seen me on a dance floor she would have tried to make a more suitable comparison for me. Let’s just say I’m a better truck driver than I am dancer.
I won’t bore you with the details of the mishaps once I actually got in the driver’s seat. In summation I stalled the truck twice – both when I slowed down to put the truck in park – and somehow went from first gear to fourth gear. My issue was using the stick shift. I couldn’t get my right hand and left foot to do different things at the same time, until Joslin intervened and told me to say “Clutch, clutch” out loud when I had to shift gears. That helped immensely. I got the hang of it, and semi-smoothly shifted from first through fifth gears easily.
Joslin explained that she didn’t have a driver trainer herself went she got started in the industry 29 years ago.
She just happened to stumble into trucking because she was getting impatient with a co-worker.
“I was working at a factory making $8 an hour and I was at the end of a production line and I had to wait around for the man with the forklift to move my skids,” she said. “And he was always so hard to find. He would always take off and I’d be stuck with these piles of skids. So one day at break, I went looking for the forklift and I found it and he wasn’t around. I got in and saw it had a steering wheel, it had levers – it can’t be that hard to do…I thought if this guy can do it, how difficult can it be? So I started moving my own skids and driving the forklift myself.”
Eventually her boss came over and asked what she was doing in the forklift and who had taught her to use it. She explained that the regular forklift operator was never around and she had taught herself and moved her own skids.
“A while later he came back and he said ‘Hey I need a truck driver are you interested?’ I didn’t know anything about a truck, but he told me they would train me. So I agreed and got my licence and I started doing it. My pay went from $8 an hour to $12 an hour. I did half the work, it was less stressful, and I was in an air-conditioned cab.”
Since then, she’s stuck around and has driven for big name companies like XTL Transport, where she first became a trainer at the advice of a colleague.
During her many years in the industry she has seen changes in trucking that she hopes can change with the help of MELT.
“When I started driving, truck drivers were the knights of the road,” she said. “If the weather was bad, you stayed behind a truck. If you wanted to know the safe places to stop or the good places to eat, you looked for where the trucks were. And somewhere along the line we’ve slipped off that white horse and we have truck drivers that are doing just as many foolish things as a car driver. I think we are held at a higher standard and we need to act it. I hope MELT will do that and bring back the image of truck drivers as being professionals.”
Just like her start in trucking, her start in helping shape what MELT will become was coincidental. Her boss at Humber was invited to be a part of the OTA group that is working on the details of MELT and was confused as to why there were no truck drivers on the committee, so she sent Joslin instead.
Joslin is a big believer that MELT is “desperately needed” in the industry because of the state of the industry and warned that the future of trucking depends on where the chips fall regarding this legislation.
“The pay for truck drivers needs to go up, too,” she said. “It’s not a blue collar job, its not a job you get when you can’t find work elsewhere…but in order to do that, the quality of driver needs to go up too. We have students who just graduate our program and they go out in the industry…and companies are painting them with the same brush as someone who went to a DriveTest centre to get their licence. At the DriveTest centres the whole test is 45 minutes. So you’ve got 15 minutes of pre-trip, then 10 minutes backing, and you’re down to 20 minutes of actual driving, and sometimes they don’t even go on the highway. Twenty minutes is enough time for right turns and four left turns.”
Her frustration was magnified when we saw three people in the cab of one of the $999 truck driving schools on our drive.
Two people were in seats (assumingly an “instructor” and a student) and one was squatting in front of the gearshift without a seatbelt…or seat for that matter.
“If MELT becomes mandatory, people will see drivers in a different light,” she said. “If news gets out that this is what the drivers are going through at Humber and Durham College, that can really help. Our students are shocked when they read the syllabus and see everything they have to do to graduate the program. But the public needs to see it too.”
Though she claims the industry is way behind on MELT, her hopes are that it will make way to bring about standards for driver instructors too.
“In order to teach somebody how to drive a car, or ride a motorcycle, you need to be a certified instructor,” she explained. “In order to teach someone how to drive a truck, all you need is a truck licence. We have had students graduate the program here and work as instructors at other schools.”
For an industry that prides itself on being safe, where is the safety there? A newbie teaching experienced drivers seems backwards, she said.
Joslin isn’t naïve enough to think that MELT will solve the industry’s problems, and admits that the Canadian transportation industry needs to step up and start giving drivers the respect they deserve too.
“I have worked for companies that believe truck drivers are a dime a dozen,” she said. “All they want is a heartbeat in a seat. But I’ve also driven for companies that will stop and listen to their drivers. You just have to look out the window. You can tell the trucking companies that are owned by drivers. Just look at the truck. Look at the equipment that they let their drivers operate.”
Not only is she well-informed and interested in the industry, but Joslin was a very patient and kind instructor, who only had encouraging words to say even though my first drive seemed embarrassingly bad.
During my tour of the building, a student who was going for his final drive test saw her and gave her a hug and told me she was the best. He was nervous for his almost three-hour test of city and highway driving, parking, 268-component pre-trip inspection, and everything in between. I wished him good luck.
Before he could reply, Joslin said “No. You don’t need luck. You have skills. Use them and you’ll be fine.”