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Truck driver shortage weighs on small food retailers

As trucking companies struggle to recruit drivers in a competitive post-pandemic job market, independent grocers feel the pinch
transport truck

Canada is in the throes of an acute shortage of commercial truck drivers.

The country is currently short some 20,000 truckers, according to a new report from PwC Canada, commissioned by Food, Health & Consumer Products of Canada (FHCP).  

That figure could soon reach 30,000, the report says, if actions are not taken by industry, business and government to recruit and retain new drivers.

“I’ve been in manufacturing a long time and there’s always been talk of driver shortages,” says Frank Scali, a supply chain expert who spent 22 years with Nestlé Canada before joining FHCP in 2019 as vice president of industry affairs. “Now we know the reality.”

The Truck Driver Shortage in Canada report was based on data analysis, surveys, on-site visits and interviews with large manufacturers, trucking companies and truckers.

Its findings paint a bleak picture of an industry with an ageing workforce that is failing to connect with young adults. And independent food merchants are feeling the pinch of the shortfall.

READ: Supply chain disruptions: Is help on the way?

Christy McMullen, who owns and operates the upscale, five-store Summerhill Market in Toronto with her father and brother, says finding enough qualified, reliable drivers for the family’s fleet of five refrigerated trucks, which are used daily to shuttle perishable and other food items between their stores and from the Ontario Food Terminal, is a constant challenge.

“We have seven full-time drivers but the number of hours they can work is limited by law,” says McMullen, who was named vice chair and director of the Ontario Food Terminal board in August.  

According to McMullen, driver turnover has remained high since the pandemic, when head hunters began actively recruiting drivers from other industries and even home-delivery services like Uber Eats.

“Drivers used to be loyal,” she says. “But now we search for them everywhere: on social media, job websites – even some guy who shows up at the door will get a look. When you find a good one, treat them like gold.”

She’s not alone. Kevin Schmidt owns Downtown Family Foods in Winnipeg – the only supermarket in the heart of the Manitoban capital – with his wife Darcey and her brother, Ryan Gingras. 

These days, Schmidt has to regularly deal with hours-long delays and even cancellations, often without notice, by third-party carriers that deliver frozen, fresh and packaged foods to his store.

In addition to needlessly bringing in – and then sending home – extra staff to help unload early-morning deliveries, Schmidt says delays force him to redeploy staff when food shipments finally arrive.

Late deliveries also result in longer unloads, clogged store aisles and impeded customers.

“They really put a wrinkle in your day,” says Schmidt.

READ: Loblaw, Gatik debut first fully driverless fleet in Canada

FHCP’s report identifies working conditions, pay, traffic congestion and frustration over long waits at delivery sites as the main irritants for drivers.

It also recommends a host of actions, including more outreach to millennials, immigrants and non-traditional trucker populations, notably women, as well as raising pay rates, creating and maintaining a welcoming work environment and investing in their trucks and equipment.

To keep shelves stocked, Mario Vanier, owner of the Quebec-based seasonal fruit and produce store Ferme Régis, has a 53-foot semi trailer that does daily runs to pick up produce from importers, local farms and farmer’s markets like Montreal’s Marché Central.

"I only need one driver, which I have, but I also have two other employees with their Class A licences, meaning they could drive his truck," he says. "But they tell me they don't work in the trucking business because it means long hours for not much pay. They prefer working for a seasonal business like mine that's close to and pays a decent wage."     

According to Marco Beghetto, vice president communications of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, a federation of provincial trucking associations that represent some 4,500 carriers, owner-operators and industry suppliers, driver shortages are nothing new in Canada.

“It’s usually a cyclical thing,” says Beghetto.  “But Covid and all the disruptions in the supply chain have changed everything. There’s no new normal right now.”

He says trucking companies are having trouble recruiting drivers in a very competitive post-pandemic job market.

“Every industry wants and needs workers,” says Beghetto. 

He says the Canadian trucking industry is currently running a social media campaign aimed at young people. Dubbed Choose to Truck, the campaign has generated more than 45 million impressions on various platforms.

Behetto says the seriousness of the driver shortage is not lost on everyday Canadians.

He pointed to a 2022 Nanos survey poll commissioned by his group that found 85% of Canadians were concerned with their ability to get goods and products due to supply chain disruptions, especially perishable goods like food. 

He says reefers, which carry frozen and fresh imported and domestic foods, represent around 12% of the Canadian trucking industry.

Beghetto says the driver shortage is affecting both long-haul and short-haul trucking.

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