How One Trucking Company is Helping Ease the Immigration Experience for New Drivers

·8 min read

Moving to a new country is stressful—from dealing with paperwork and looking for an apartment, to adjusting to new cultural norms and being away from family.

“The challenges when you arrive here [are because] it’s all new to you,” says Ryan Robertson, a truck driver based in Castlegar, B.C.

“If you had a guide to help you get settled, [who] knows where to go and how to do the things you need to get the proper paperwork—once you have someone to show you all of that, then it would be much easier for you to settle in,” he says.

“For the driving part, if you just have a GPS you’ll know where to go,” he adds with a laugh.

When it comes to immigrating to a new country, it helps to have a relative or a friend for a ‘GPS’.

If you’re lucky, that GPS could even be your new employer.

Robertson, 43, had been working for a local trucking company in Jamaica when B.C.-based Sutco Transportation Specialists visited the country to recruit drivers.

With 17 years of professional driving experience under his belt, Robertson thought it would be interesting to come to Canada and see what the opportunity would bring.

So he applied, got the job, and moved to Kelowna after receiving his work permit, issued through a positive Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA)—then known as the Labour Market Opinion (LMO). This was in 2013.

While the first three months were challenging, Roberson says Sutco was helpful with what he needed.

Mario Šipek, 40, shared a similar experience. In 2015, he interviewed with two transportation companies that were visiting Zagreb to recruit truck drivers, one of which was Sutco.

“I talked with my wife and said, ‘Should I go? What do we have to lose? Let’s go and see what happens,’” Šipek says.

He made the cut with both employers, and eventually went with Sutco, where he now works as a wood chip driver—just as he did in Croatia. “I never regretted it. It was a good decision.”

Šipek goes on to explain how the company assisted with his accommodation and paperwork and provided recommendations for other things he needed—which Robertson echoes.

“Just about anything I asked for, they helped out with,” says Roberson. “They were like a family.”

The family-like experience was intentional. Sutco itself is a family-run transportation company founded by husband-and-wife Chris and Melanie Sutherland in 1995, together with Chris’ father, Robert. Headquartered in Salmo, B.C., Sutco hired their first international driver in 2012.

“The reason I’m super passionate about this is that I’ve personally been through it,” says Doug Sutherland, president of Sutco and brother to Chris.

Doug shared his experiences living in Mexico, not knowing the language and looking for a place to live. “You need help from so many people to be successful,” he says.

He then lived in the US for about seven years, where he had to go through the immigration process. “And my wife is Mexican. So we went through all the paperwork for the US when she was there, and all the same processes when she came to Canada.”

Seeing some of these challenges first-hand, Sutherland says, played a lot into their own process when it came to hiring workers from abroad.

“How can we help people when they come? How can we make that easier?”

The trucking industry is not exempt from migrant worker exploitation, whether it’s charging recruits big sums of money for a job or sending them on the road without adequate training. The latter has led to deadly consequences, including the Humboldt Broncos bus crash that killed 16 in 2018.

“One of the challenges we have is that underbelly of the industry—those that are bringing in workers and not treating them fairly. That’s a challenge for us because it impacts the image of our industry,” says Angela Splinter, CEO of Trucking HR Canada.

She adds that while they don’t want migrant drivers to end up in abusive fleets, LMIAs for their recruitment can still get approved and issued.

Canada’s shortage of truck drivers doesn’t help. According to Trucking HR, there are about 20,000 vacant truck driver positions in the country, with 61 per cent of employers reporting they are unable to find the drivers they need.

And while the unemployment rate among truck drivers is lower at 6.2 per cent compared to the rest of the workforce at 9.8 per cent, “if every currently unemployed truck driver were hired into a vacant position, there would still be more than 11,000 unfilled jobs,” Trucking HR reports.

“The demand for drivers is going to continue and the demand to bring them in from overseas is going to continue,” says Dave Earle, president and CEO of the British Columbia Trucking Association.

“So what we’ve seen is a wide variety of approaches [among trucking companies],” he says. “We have members who are actively engaged in long-term relationships with overseas markets, bringing in individuals as temporary foreign workers, and using that as a springboard to…reunite with their families.”

“Then you have other companies who are selling positions, exploiting temporary foreign workers,” he adds.

“So you’ve got this wide spectrum of people who are doing an excellent job, and others who are the worst of the worst. So that experience for workers who are coming in is variable.”

Pre-pandemic, a Sutco staff would come to the airport to welcome drivers who were arriving.

“COVID changed things a bit. I was still at the airport to meet them, but with masks on, six feet away,” says Maris Bourdin, HR manager at Sutco.

These days, new drivers are required to quarantine after they arrive, but Sutco’s first order of business otherwise is to get the drivers settled in. “We would have an immigration consultant take them around to get their social insurance number, bank account, and a cellphone on the first day,” Bourdin says.

Sutco also assists with their accommodation, absorbing costs until the drivers are settled in and able to shoulder their own expenses.

The drivers then proceed to driving school for training, starting with their Learner’s and Class Five knowledge and road tests. Once they get their license, they’re trained for additional weeks, depending on the other skills their role requires. When they’re ready, Sutco sends them out on the road.

Marius Grisajevas, 33, came to Canada through the Working Holiday program.

Originally from Lithuania, Grisajevas worked for a year and a half as a truck driver in London. He had been considering returning to Lithuania when he decided to try Canada’s Working Holiday program—a route that lets citizens of select countries travel to Canada and find temporary paid employment.

His application went through. “I contacted more than a dozen companies [for work], and Sutco was one of the few that got back to me,” he says. After an introductory phone call—and a few job offers from other companies—Grisajevas decided to work for Sutco.

He arrived in 2019 and is now based in Kelowna. After a year on his temporary work permit, Sutco got him an LMIA, and Grisajevas has since applied for permanent residency through the Provincial Nominee Program.

“Sutco helped me a lot. I wasn’t doing it all by myself,” he says. “They kind of met me with open hands.”

The company’s efforts—along with those of other trucking companies across the country, many of whom have been recognized by Trucking HR’s Top Fleet Employers (TFE) program—haven’t gone unnoticed. In October 2020, Sutco was a Top Medium Fleet awardee at Trucking HR’s annual TFE awards ceremony. In prior years, it has also been recognized as a top fleet employer.

“Going to Mexico and seeing how tight-knit [my wife’s family] is really helps me understand that when people leave these countries, that’s their network [they’re leaving],” says Sutherland. “A person that comes in to generate income [has] joined our family and we have to help them feel that way because they’ve sacrificed so much to leave their families.”

After four years in Canada, Robertson’s wife and stepson were able to join him in Canada. “There are a lot of opportunities here for a trucker,” he says. “My son can have different schools to choose from, my wife can have different jobs.”

“I’m happy for that, and I appreciate that.”

Šipek’s wife was also able to join him two and a half months after he arrived.

Bourdin says it’s important for them to share their gratitude with the drivers they work with. “You know, the sacrifices they make and the hours they work, being away from their family—that pays my salary and it helps feed my kids. That’s an important thing to share and drivers don’t usually get that gratitude,” he says.

“We all know this—we don’t have enough truck drivers, airline pilots, dentists. We don’t have enough people working in ICBC. We don’t have enough mail carriers. You know, we just need more people.”

“So finally getting the right people into the right professions is huge.”

Johna Baylon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, New Canadian Media