The original intent of Ontario’s mandatory entry-level training (MELT) was to establish a minimum amount of training and expected level of competency before someone could be licenced to drive a truck.
It was an effort to rid the province of license mills, which were “schools” that produced drivers who were only trained to pass the Ontario Ministry of Transportation driving test.
They tried every trick in the book, including taking the test in pickup trucks and horse trailers, as well as trucks with automated or automatic transmissions.
To ensure candidates knew what to expect on the test, it was standard practice to train them on the route that examiners used for the actual road test.
The National Training Standard
Trucking HR Canada developed a national occupational standard that defined the job of a truck driver after months of consultations. Competencies drawn from that were incorporated into Ontario’s MELT framework.
After the Ontario government agreed to make the program mandatory for truck driving schools in the province, other jurisdictions followed suit, with some modifications along the way.
Then, Transportation Minister Marc Garneau announced in March 2020 that Canada would soon have a national entry-level training standard. It was adopted as National Safety Code Standard No. 16.
“The original Ontario document is NSC Standard 16,” Vander Zwaag says. “It’s the same curriculum standard document that several provinces refer to, but it doesn’t always correspond with the curriculum that schools teach.”
While the standard requires 103.5 hours of training, other provinces have different requirements. Saskatchewan and Alberta both require a minimum of 121.5 hours. Ontario requires 103.5 hours, while British Columbia requires 140. Some of the training in the latter province includes mountain driving and tire chains, neither of which are directly applicable in Ontario or Manitoba but they would be useful skills to have if students ever had to drive in British Columbia.
Spotty Enforcement of Schools
Certain conditions were built into the original MELT framework that training schools had to meet. These included using qualified instructors and keeping records of those qualifications, teaching students with loaded trailers, keeping records of the training students received, and filing student evaluation forms with the various Ministries before allowing the student to schedule a road test.
It should come as no surprise that some schools break the rules and rely on spotty or non-existent enforcement of the regulations.
“When it comes to oversight, you can impose any number of measures. You can tell the schools to do this or that, but if no one is policing it… “You know, as well as I do, what you enforce is more important than what the law says,” Vander Zwaag says.
Lack enforcement can result in lacks adherence to the rules.
Before scheduling a road test, instructors are supposed to fill out evaluation forms that reflect a student’s skill at performing certain tasks.
“They’ve attached 13 skill evaluations and three written evaluations to the program here in British Columbia,” says Andy Roberts, president of the Mountain Transport Institute in Castlegar. “You must obtain 80% on the written evaluations, and you must pass the skills evaluations twice — two different times — in order to complete the MELT program. So it’s not just a matter of showing up and putting in a certain number of hours. It’s all about demonstrating competence.”
The problem with evaluating skills is that it is subjective.
“If you go from school to school, you won’t see the same bar set on those skill evaluations. “What I’ll pass, what you’ll pass, and what someone else will pass are all going to be different,” Roberts says.
It’s one thing to receive a piece of paper stating that you passed your evaluations. It’s another thing entirely to pass a driving test. As a result, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), which oversees licensing, is in a bind.
“ICBC is responsible for monitoring and checking up on the school,” Roberts says, noting that the high number of failed road tests contradicts the high number of glowing skill evaluations. “The ICBC now has its hands full trying to get enough people to go around and audit the schools to ensure they’re doing what they say they’re doing.”
Finishing the Driver Training Job
The other “issue” with MELT is the widespread belief that MELT graduates should be immediately employable and ready to work on Day 1. Some may be, but they are the exceptions. Entry-level training is exactly what it sounds like. If the student received adequate training, after passing the final exams, the student is simply ready to learn how to drive a truck.
This is where finishing programs and mentoring come into play.
Zavcor Training Academy, located near Fort Erie in Stevensville, Ont., has established finishing programs with several carriers in the Niagara region. And, according to school director Bill Lipsit, carriers should have certified in-cab instructors who do nothing but coach and train incoming candidates.
“Typically, we’ll start a ‘green’ driver with two or three days, sometimes more, just driving locally without a load to start fine-tuning what the driver learned in school,” he says. “After that, we’ll put the new driver on some of our simpler local deliveries for several weeks. At that point, the trainee’s pay is deducted from the load revenue, but you must accept that the green driver can only do about 60% of the typical workload because they are learning.”
When the new driver is deemed ready, he or she is dispatched on regular revenue loads alongside another driver in a separate truck who serves as a coach and mentor. After a few trips, the instructor re-joins the new driver for an evaluation and, if necessary, remedial training.
“Once they start running those loads, they are fully productive,” Lipsit says. “The only true cost of such a program is the instructor’s time and some lost productivity. It varies by student, but expect to pay between $10,000 and $20,000.”
Insuring New Drivers
You’ll almost certainly need the approval of your insurance company.
“Many insurance companies say flat-out no to hiring green drivers, but we’ve found that if you have a well-structured training plan and the commitment to follow it through,” Lipsit says. “Our entry-level training is just the beginning.”
All of this is presuming that an employer’s company has a proactive safety culture. Not everyone does.
Kris Fulgham of CayCan Safety Consulting in Alberta sees this in the results of carrier safety audits he conducts for businesses that use trucks to support operations other than the “trucking” industry. Such companies frequently take MELT at face value and assume that drivers are properly trained.
Take, for example, pre-trip inspections.
“You can tell which drivers have been well trained in how to do good pre-trip inspections in an audit,” he says. “Those who don’t have numerous roadside infractions for lighting, flat tires, and brake adjustments. When I ask what the company has done to train the driver, they usually say, ‘They came through MELT. The government gave its approval. They know exactly what they’re doing.’ Clearly, they do not.”
Is MELT worth saving?
MELT is not without flaws, but they are not always structural. The course prerequisites are just that: prerequisites. Many schools provide several levels of training beyond the basic MELT program. Some programs last six to eight weeks and include on-the-job training with a carrier, with tuition that can be double or triple that of MELT.
In some provinces, the fundamental problem with MELT is a lack of oversight, which allows some schools to essentially maintain the licensing-mill model that MELT was designed to prevent. As a result, we continue to see poorly trained drivers on the road, aided and abetted by shady insurance brokers who turn a blind eye to their clients’ shenanigans.
MELT makes the trucking industry a partner in driver training and development, sharing some of the cost of bringing entry-level talent up to professional calibre. Proactive carriers collaborate with the appropriate schools to ensure that graduates meet their minimum hiring standards.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for the right driver to come knocking. If you want high-quality entry-level drivers, you must play an active role in their development. MELT does not absolve you of this duty.