MELT truck driver training standards are only minimums, and gaps remain

When Ontario established mandatory entry-level training (MELT), the original intent was to establish a minimum amount of training and expected level of competency before someone could be licensed to drive a truck.

It was largely an effort to rid the province of so-called licence mills – “schools” that were churning out drivers trained only to pass the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s on-road driving test. They used every trick in the book, from taking the test with pickup trucks and horse trailers, to using trucks equipped with automated or automatic transmissions. The standard practice was to train students on the route that examiners used for the actual road test, to ensure candidates knew what to expect on the test.

Even so, the failure rates were high, almost guaranteeing that clients would return for remedial training. At additional cost, of course.

truck driver training
(File photo: John G. Smith)

“MELT was an industry initiative that came about through the [Canadian Trucking Alliance’s] Blue Ribbon Task Force as a way of addressing licence mills, and as a way of ensuring that people looking for a Class A or Class 1 licence get meaningful, basic, minimal training,” says Techni-Com president Rolf VanderZwaag, a developer of training programs and one of the architects of MELT in Ontario.

The national training standard

Following months of consultations, Trucking HR Canada developed a national occupational standard that defined the job of a truck driver. Competencies pulled from that were included in what would become Ontario’s MELT framework.

Once the Ontario government bought in and made the program mandatory for truck driving schools in that province, other jurisdictions came onboard, making changes along the way.

In March 2020, then Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced that Canada would soon have a national entry level training standard. It became National Safety Code Standard 16.

“NSC Standard 16 is the original Ontario document,” VanderZwaag says. “It’s the same curriculum standard document that several provinces point to, but it does not always align with the curriculum that schools are teaching.”

While the standard calls for 103.5 hours of training, other provinces have established different minimums. Saskatchewan and Alberta require at least 121.5 hours. Ontario demands 103.5, while B.C. requires 140 hours. Some of the latter province’s training covers mountain driving and tire chains, none of which are directly applicable in Ontario or Manitoba. But they sure would be skills worth having should students ever find themselves driving in B.C.  

Spotty enforcement of schools

Built into the original MELT framework were certain conditions that must be met by the training schools. These include using qualified instructors and maintaining records associated with those qualifications, teaching students with loaded trailers, maintaining records of the training students receive, and filing student evaluation forms with the various ministries prior to allowing the student to book a road test.  

It should come as no surprise that some schools play fast and loose with those rules and rely on spotty or almost non-existent enforcement of the regulations through audits and spot checks.

“When it comes to the question of oversight, you can impose all kinds of things. You can tell the schools they must do this or that, but if there’s nobody policing it … You know, as well as I do, it’s what you enforce that matters, not what the law says,” VanderZwaag says.

And lax enforcement can lead to lax adherence to the rules.

For example, evaluation forms are supposed to be filled out by instructors and reflect a student’s skill at performing certain tasks prior to booking a road test.  

“They’ve attached 13 skills evaluations and three written evaluations to the program here in B.C.,” says Andy Roberts, president of Mountain Transport Institute in Castlegar. “And 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 about showing up and putting in X number of hours. It’s actually about proving some competency.”

The problem with the skills evaluation is that it is subjective.

“If you go from school to school, you’re not going to see the same bar set on those skills evaluations. What I’m going to pass, what you’re going to pass, and what somebody else is going to pass are all going to be different,” Roberts says.

It’s one thing to get piece of paper that says you have passed your evaluations. It’s quite another to pass the road test for a licence. And that’s put the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), which administers licensing, in a difficult position.

“ICBC is responsible for monitoring and checking up on the school,” Roberts says, noting the high level of road test failures doesn’t jibe with the high number of glowing skills evaluations. “ICBC now has its hands full trying to get enough people to go around and audit the schools to make sure they’re actually doing what they say they are doing.”

Finishing the driver training job

The other “problem” with MELT is the widely held perception that MELT graduates should be imminently hirable and ready to work on Day 1. Some might be, but they would be the exceptions. Entry-level training is what it says it is. If the training the student received was adequate, upon passing the final tests the student is simply ready to learn how to be a truck driver.

That’s where finishing programs and mentoring apply.

Zavcor Training Academy in Stevensville, Ont., near Fort Erie, has established finishing programs with several carriers in the Niagara region. And school director Bill Lipsit says carriers should at the bare minimum have certified in-cab instructors that do nothing other than coach and train incoming candidates.

“We’ll usually 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 [with the instructor in the right seat]. At that point, the instructor’s and the trainee’s wages are coming out of the revenue from the load, but you have to 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 sent out on regular revenue loads in tandem with another driver in a separate truck who acts as a coach and mentor. After a few trips, the new driver is joined again by the instructor for an evaluation and, if necessary, remedial training.

“Once they start running those loads, they are fully productive, but they are still in training,” Lipsit says. “The only real cost to such a program is the instructor’s time and some lost productivity. It’s different for each student, but you’re looking at between $10,000 and $20,000.”

Insuring new drivers

And you’ll probably need the blessing of your insurance company.

“Many insurance companies say flat-out no to hiring green drivers, but we have found them willing to consider the option if you have a well-structure training plan and the commitment to follow it through,” Lipsit says. “The entry-level training we offer is just the beginning.”

All this assumes that an employer’s business has a proactive safety culture. Not all do.

Kris Fulgham of Alberta-based CayCan Safety Consulting sees this in the results of carrier safety audits that he conducts for businesses which use trucks to support operations outside the “trucking” industry. Such businesses often take MELT at face value and assume drivers are properly trained.

Take pre-trip inspections, for example.

“You can tell in an audit which drivers have been well trained in how to do good pre-trip inspections,” he says. “The ones that aren’t have numerous roadside infractions for lighting, flat tires, and brake adjustment. When I ask what the company has done to train the driver they usually say something like, ‘They came through MELT. The government signed off. They know what they’re doing.’ Well, clearly, they don’t.”

Is MELT worth saving?

MELT is not without its shortcomings, but those aren’t always structural. The course minimums are just that: minimums. Many schools offer several tiers of training up from the basic MELT program. Some programs run as long as six to eight weeks and can include on-the-job training with a carrier, with tuitions that can be double or triple those associated with MELT.

The fundamental problem with MELT in some provinces is the lack of oversight, which allows some schools to essentially maintain the licensing-mill model that MELT was designed to prevent. Consequently, we still see poorly trained drivers hitting the street, aided and abetted by shady insurance brokers turning a blind eye to their clients’ shenanigans.   

What MELT does, or is intended to do, is make the trucking industry a partner in driver training and development, and share some of the cost of bringing entry-level talent up to a professional caliber. Proactive carriers work with the right schools to ensure the graduates’ skills are up to their minimum hiring standards.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the perfect driver to come knocking at your door. If you want quality entry-level drivers, you’ll have to take in active role in building them. MELT doesn’t relieve you of that responsibility.