Are all truck drivers equal? You must be joking!

Ramesh Kumar from Greater Noida

“Career progression is the new minimum wage,” the Wall Street Journal quoted Ardine Williams, Vice President of Workforce Development at Amazon some time ago. Like several other HR honchos of the American corporate world, he has emphasized the importance of enabling the existing workforce to pursue education while working with free funding and helping them explore moving vertically or horizontally in the same company. William’s sole objective was to retain talent or ensure job stickiness. Covid19 and the labor shortage must have weighed heavily on the likes of Williams.

Career progression is a universal theme. Nothing America-specific. In the Indian trucking context, one could hear a feeble echo of this theme in some corners. “(A) person with 20 years experience is a driver. So is five or 10 years experienced (driver). Ironical. No weightage for experience” says Selvan Dasaraj of ex-Mahindra Logistics honcho. True, there is no formal differentiation of drivers by fleet owners.

Are all drivers equal? Yes. One joins the trucking profession as a driver and remains one till he takes his hands off the steering and feet off the accelerator and brake. Some, no doubt, graduate into supervisors provided the owner wills and wants to reward for the loyalty to his company. This number is nothing to write to boast of.

Drivers’ stickiness with fleet owners is weak. There is no formal employer-employee relationship with a proper appointment letter with perks such as provident fund, and medical and accident insurance. Above all, drivers’ compensation is based on per kilometer driven. Therefore, more or less equal pay, irrespective of experience. When a better compensation offer materializes, drivers jump “trucks” from one owner to another. The question of loyalty to the owner does not arise. Their loyalty is to their earning potential. Having said that, some drivers stick with the same company for decades; actually, they induct their sons/nephews also into the same company since the recruitment process in trucking is through referral only.

“Does it matter what they call us?” asks Punit Verma sipping his extra-sugary tea at a highway dhaba in Sikar, Rajasthan — one of the key truck driver sourcing belts in north India. One can hear the same sentiment among the driver community across the length and breadth of Indian highways.

Ahmednagar-based Gorak Maruti Anna, my man-to-go-to for any highway challenges in the state of Maharashtra involving truck drivers, pooh-poohs at the idea of renaming drives as pilots. “Our Rajas and maharajas called them “saratis”. British began calling them “drivers”. Pilots are for airplanes, argues the office bearer of a truck drivers association with pan India reach.

Telangana-based Nijum Riyaz, Principal of the Driver Training Institute jointly promoted by the State government and Ashok Leyland is keen to usher in changes in the way drivers are trained and inducted into the trade. “First, let us stop calling them truck drivers. Why not Vehicle Pilots?,” Riyaz poses rhetorically.

After spending more than 18 years in Afghanistan and West Africa selling Leyland vehicles, he opted to manage Leyland’s driver training institute on his return to his home base: Hyderabad. With a decade in store before he superannuates, he is keen to address the driver shortage challenge in India.

The stigma attached to the truck driving profession is acting as a dampener. “I plan to remove this stigma in whatever way possible and make this a career choice. That’s where the change of nomenclature from truck driver to vehicle pilot is necessary,” elaborates Riyaz.

As part of his dream to make the truck driver a “sexy” career option, he is keen on working out a career progression plan. “Why not?” asks he and hastens to add that such a plan is not unachievable. Riyaz is not alone in his dream realized. Mumbai-based Mohan Subramaniam of Transmitr Sewa Foundation, a registered NGO, utilizes his educational institution visits to impress upon the school finalists of the potential job as truck drivers.

“Watching the economy, you cannot run away from the fact that a degree is no passport to jobs. That era is over. Jobless growth is the reality. Companies — big or small or medium — prefer the automation route to avoid human labor challenges. Gradual, but inevitable. So, fewer openings for freshers. Post-Covid19, MSMEs, one of the biggest job generators, are in a coma. There again, no job opportunity,” explained Mohan.

Still, it is not doomsday ahead projections for Mohan. According to him, India’s growth trajectory with a US$5tn goal combined with the Make In India campaign offers a glimmer of hope on the job front, particularly on the logistics front. “Make in India, simply put, means producing tangible goods. India has successfully embraced the globalization route; that is we have gone into for outsourcing path. Big companies assemble components or parts brought from vendors from different locations. Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis, Adanis, Mahindras, etc produce a lot of tangible goods with outsourced items. They and their white-collar crew don’t carry headloads from vendors to their assembly points. Agarwals, Nandas, Kotwals, Sharmas, Singhs, lend their fleet for inbound operations and also help them to move their finished products to the market shelves,” adds Mohan.

So, there will be a huge demand for transportation and trucking especially. Today, both Mohan and Riyaz concede that the trucks coming out of HCV OEMs are getting hitech: BSVI with onboard digital or electronic items. “A better understanding of gadgets on board opens up jobs for better educated fresh job seekers,” says Riyaz.

Cabin comfort is also gathering momentum. If one adds a well-designed career progression chart, two challenges get addressed: primarily, employment opportunity and simultaneously the 22% driver shortage.

Ramesh Venkat, Head-New Business of the Logistics Skill Development Council, draws attention to the proposal before the government to create a new course in the Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) where the curriculum to include maintenance, materials, and operation for students, “who can be absorbed by the automotive industry, the biggest job generator”. Driving too is an avenue. Yes, over time these new entrants with better education can impact several aspects of trucking. It’s a long haul, but worth pursuing.

However, the chances of such ITI-certified diploma holders, as and when it happens, would look for jobs with a proper appointment letter and other social benefits and certainly NOT the “detached attachment” of Indian motor maliks. Are these “enlightened businesspeople” the true followers of the traditional Indian philosophy espoused by the scriptures?

CORRECTIONS carried in the Ramesh Venkat para following clarifications from the Logistics Skill Council.

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