Can MELT revamp the truck driving industry?

On July 1, 2017, all new truck drivers in Ontario will need to complete mandatory entry-level training (known as MELT) before they’re able to take their Class A road test and start their careers in commercial truck driving. Ontario is the first province in Canada to implement this type of standardized training, and it’s expected to be a game changer in the transportation industry.

What Standardized truck driver training can – and can’t – accomplish

You would be hard-pressed to get a Class A licence in Ontario without some sort of training before taking the road test, but as of July 1, hopeful drivers may have to pay more and work even harder to get into a truck (and into the workforce).

With the introduction of MELT, all training providers approved by the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) must offer a curriculum that matches the new Commercial Truck Driver Training Standard (Class A): 103.5 hours of training in the classroom and on the road before the Class A road test can be taken.

Transportation authorities and veteran drivers agree that MELT is a step toward a higher level of safety, proficiency and professionalism among truck drivers, and ideally, one that will attract more people to the Canadian trucking industry. However, the new program might not be as ideal as it seems on the surface.

How MELT will change truck driver training

MELT is designed for new drivers who want to earn their commercial truck driving licence – it won’t apply to current drivers who already have a valid Class A licence, no matter what sort of official training they have under their belts. And while some schools will have to overhaul their training programs, others already meet or exceed the MELT requirements.

The program’s main intention is to set a higher training standard that will improve safety and competency on the road from the very beginning. This means cracking down on unqualified licensing schools that charge hefty fees for inadequate training. So, while the changes won’t affect everyone, the hope is that they’ll improve both the function and the reputation of the trucking industry.

The benefits of MELT

At the second annual Truck Training Schools Association of Ontario conference this past February, there was a clear consensus among a panel of industry experts: a standardized training program will cultivate stronger work experience.

Rolf VanderZwaag, Manager of Maintenance & Technical Issues at the Ontario Trucking Association and an expert in the trucking industry, points out that “a higher standard of training will mean more drivers start off with a stronger set of skills. Better drivers mean less turnover, and there will be fewer capable Class A licence holders out of work. And of course, everyone on the road will be safer.”

On the other hand, when more work and commitment is involved, fewer people will make the cut. It’s true that the commercial truck driving industry is in need of drivers, and some people continue to expect that a quick and easy training session to get their Class A will land them a job right away.  David Goruk, Risk Services Specialist from Northbridge Insurance, adds that “MELT is going to take those people out of the equation. Fly-by-night training schools looking to make a quick dollar won’t be able to promote their programs so easily now, and students will need to prove they can do more than simply pass the road test.

The limitations of MELT

While MELT has some excellent aspects, it’s not a perfect solution. For one, training could get expensive: fees will be set by individual training providers, and Goruk suspects some schools will hike up course costs in the name of more comprehensive training. This spike in fees could increase the driver shortage even more, as fewer potential drivers are able to make their way through the mandated process.

For instance, new drivers who have learned the trade through experience and informal training rather than a school will be forced to take a step back, fork out the cash and commit time to completing the new standardized course before taking the Class A road test. Is it fair? Technically, yes. But it could also prove to be an unfortunate barrier to keen and competent young drivers in an industry that already struggles to recruit younger people.

MELT could even instil a false sense of expertise. With a new higher standard of driver training, the fear is that many drivers and employers alike will assume that there’s no more work to be done once the course is complete. Goruk sees it differently: “until driving is made a skilled trade, there are no standards for a finishing program, so training should be ongoing. Mentoring programs should last for months, not a weekend.”

Looking ahead

The current standard of training at the MTO focuses on safety basics, and “will not automatically make you good at your job”, Goruk reminds us. There is absolutely a need for standardized training to better prepare potential drivers for the enormous variety of circumstances and conditions they could meet on the road. The question is, will MELT find the balance between effective training and ease of access that will bring more good drivers into the trucking industry?

For now, industry experts like VanderZwaag and Goruk are looking ahead with cautious optimism and a healthy dose of reality. MELT won’t solve the truck driver shortage, but it could solve some underlying problems that contribute to that deficit, and that’s a good start.

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