Groupe Robert fights to haul in new drivers
Long-haul truckers earn between $48,000 and $60,000 a year. But Quebec's transport companies can't attract enough into the profession.

Maurice Noël hitched a trailer to his rig, loaded up with diesel and then rummaged through the tiny cab that he lives and sleeps in five days a week. It was Wednesday and he'd already hauled cargo to Stony Point, Ontario and Alexandria, Pennsylvania, and there were still two days to go before he'd be back home.

"It's a tough life," said Noël, one of 1,100 drivers with Transport Robert, a Boucherville-based trucking firm. "You have to love it, otherwise you won't last long."

Noël is an industry veteran who has been on the road for three decades. He is old school, tough as nails and doesn't complain much. But drivers like him are fewer and farther between, said Claude Robert, Transport Robert's president

"We need more," Robert said. "I have to hire about 250 drivers a year and I can't find enough."

Robert isn't alone. Despite the fact that long-haul truck drivers earn between $48,000 and $60,000 a year, and that barriers-to-entry into the profession are low, many of Quebec's largest transportation firms cite staffing as their primary challenges.

"Younger men don't want to be away from home for long periods of time," Robert said. "They are more involved with their family lives. Those that have kids, want to be around to watch them grow up."

The upshot is that Canada's trucking industry is beset by an increasingly aging workforce, with a critical mass of drivers due to retire in the coming decade, and few new entrants to pick up the slack.

According to the Quebec Trucking Association, the industry needs to attract 37,300 new drivers each year to meet industry growth and to replace retirees and workers who simply quit the profession. But according to the association's president Marc Cadieux, younger Canadians are missing out on a good opportunity.

"A truck driver gets to see the country, meet people and they are their own boss," said Cadieux. "There's a lot of advantages."

Robert knows what drivers are going through more than most owners. His father founded Transport Robert in 1946, and although he studied accounting in university, he's been around the business all his life.

When Claude Robert bought out his father's company in 1962, it had just eight trucks. But he immediately set his sights higher. Growth began slowly and steadily, but spiked quickly after the signings of the Canada-U.S. and NAFTA free trade deals in the late 1980s.

Today the Transport Robert has 2,250 employees, who last year delivered $280 million worth of hauling, storage and logistics services to a string of clients such as Domtar, Industries Lassonde and Abbott Laboratories.

But unlike many accountants, Robert's knowledge of the business that he operates in isn't just theoretical or abstract. He owns his own rig and doesn't mind getting his hands dirty.

"I do between 35,000 and 45,000 kilometers a year," Robert said. "Every time I go on a business trip, I always check to see if there is a load that needs to be dropped off nearby."

Robert's long hours behind the wheel have given him an unusually strong insight into the minds of his drivers. As a result he makes sure that they are well paid, operate in a safe working environment and treated well.

"You have to minimize the amount of time they are away from home," Robert said. "But when they are on the road, you have to give them as many hours as possible."

Although trucking may seem like it's all about moving stuff from one place to another, there's a lot more to it. The trick to success is to move those goods efficiently. That means minimizing the amount of time that vehicles "drive empty." When a company operates at peak efficiency, every truck that brings a load to one town, also picks up a load nearby on the way back.

Keeping a fleet of 1,100 trucks operating at maximum capacity is a big job. In fact, almost half of Transport Robert's staff are office people, including schedulers, computer operators and sales personnel.

But the hardest to attract, are the drivers. To get them, Claude Robert has taken several innovative steps. The company has set up booths at job fairs and industry conventions. Along with many in the industry, he's also increasingly given thought to attracting drivers from outside the country.

But no matter how efficient Canada's trucking companies are, one persistent irritant they can do little about is problems at the border said Noël.

"We send the all the paperwork ahead (to U.S. customs) and we try to go through the smaller, quieter outposts. But we still end up waiting an hour or two each time," Noël said.

Although many Canadians are reluctant to enter the profession, the Noël family is doing its part. Maurice Noël's son, who is now 29 years also works in the industry, though it's for a rival firm.

"For him it's a great job. He is young, he has a lot of energy and he doesn't have a family," Noël said. "But it gets a lot harder when you get older."


Fact Box:
Company Name: Robert Transport
Owner: Claude Robert
Founded: 1946
Sales: $280 million
Fleet: 1,100 trucks, 2,800 trailers
Products: Trucking services
Employees: 2,250
Phone #: 514-521-1011


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Peter Diekmeyer
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