Dr. Natasha Hanson originally joined On the Move in 2012-2013 as an affiliated trainee. Under the supervision of Dr. Pauline Gardiner Barber, her research for her PhD (in Social Anthropology from Dalhousie University) investigated the mobility patterns and decision-making processes of people living in Miramichi, New Brunswick. Upon completion of her PhD, she was accepted as a postdoctoral fellow with the Prince Edward Island Field Research Component of On the Move. In transitioning to this new role, her research shifted focus to examine the effects of employment-related mobility on truckers operating out of Prince Edward Island. Although her official (paid) postdoctoral position ended in June of 2014, she continues to be involved with the analysis and dissemination of these research results and she remains associated with the University of Prince Edward Island Departments of Sociology and Anthropology as an Adjunct Academic. She has recently started working in a new position with Horizon Health Network, one of New Brunswick’s provincial health authorities, as a Research Writer. In this role, she helps facilitate research writing (including grants and academic papers) with clinicians.
Q: Your postdoctoral research investigated how truckers operating out of PEI are affected by employment-related mobility. Can you elaborate on some of your findings? What, if any, are some of the important questions that this raised for you?
N: Well, there are many findings that have come out of the data thus far. I’ll elaborate on a few about which I’ve written (or am in the process of writing).
I think the social and familial impacts of employment-related mobility in the trucking industry are important findings. We found that for many driver participants, employment-related decisions about the kind of trucking routes they would drive, amount of home time, and rate of pay were complex familial decisions. The impact of work on home life was a key concern of truck drivers. Drivers’ practices of taking family on the road with them were discussed, particularly in relation to historical changes of company policies, which now hinder such trips. Drivers as well as company owners or representatives felt that work-related mobility has contributed to the decrease in the proportion of the population becoming truckers.
Our data also illustrated the historical connections between rural communities and the trucking industry within PEI. Interviewees described agricultural workers in particular, having familiarity with heavy equipment and trucks, historically transitioning to truck drivers when looking for alternative work. This group of workers has diminished over time with changes to Canadian agriculture and the economy. The trucking industry is also experiencing a labour shortage. Our data showed these linkages and how changes to rural labour markets in PEI and the trucking industry have impacted this labour shortage. Interviewees also talked about rural labour markets and the trend toward inter-provincial migration or commuter migration.
Interviewees discussed company size within the PEI trucking industry and how it impacts driver mobility. Larger for-hire companies or private trucking companies have the advantage of more secure customers and thus freight to haul. This is contrasted with smaller for-hire companies and owner-operators who do not have the same security in terms of customers/freight. Driver routes are directly impacted by this, with drivers working for those with steady clients being more likely to have dedicated runs and thus more consistent scheduling (time on the road and then time at home). Drivers working for smaller companies are more likely to have variable schedules. The trucking industry is one in which mobility is part of a driver’s occupation, yet the amount of variability within that mobility is connected to larger socio-economic power structures.
In terms of important questions that the findings have raised, there are many. However, one in particular that I’ve been thinking about is how the experiences and challenges faced by those in the PEI trucking industry compare nationally. This is an ongoing interest of mine and one that will likely never be fully realized, however I think the question itself is important because there are regional and provincial differences (in everything from regulations and policies, political economies and social ties) that really impact on-the ground realities for those in the industry.
I also think it’s important to question how the burden of just-in-time deliveries has impacted trucking logistics and drivers.
Q: Why were you interested in the trucking/transportation industry of PEI? Is there a reason you were drawn to that particular group in that province?
N: The project was already defined and I applied for the postdoctoral position. However, I applied because I was interested in people’s mobility patterns, particularly in relation to their work. This topic was directly related to my PhD dissertation, which investigated the mobility patterns of people who lived in Miramichi, New Brunswick in relation to the changing political economy there and the downturn of the pulp and paper industry. This postdoctoral fellowship offered an opportunity to continue researching mobility and employment in the Maritime region.
Q: Were you surprised by anything that came out of your field research?
N: I wasn’t necessarily surprised by my findings, but like many people, I hadn’t truly considered how integral the transportation and trucking industry is, particularly for an island like PEI. The majority of goods reach PEI via truck, just as most freight across Canada is hauled by truck. It’s surprising how little attention (or should I say how little positive attention) the industry receives considering this. Interviewees noted how people complain about trucks on highways, and yet their homes are filled with goods delivered via trucks.
Q: I noticed from your 2014 webinar presentation that you (or another interviewer?) in some instances went along for the ride to conduct interviews. Are there any insights or memories you can share from those particular experiences?
N: I conducted all of the interviews and ride-alongs for the research. I have to say that the ride-alongs were particularly interesting and insightful. I essentially shadowed these truckers for a day, sitting as a passenger while they went about their pick-ups and deliveries. They were very giving to allow a relative stranger to be in their space asking questions during their workdays (which could often be quite long). It was really great to experience their regular stops on routes, and to learn about where they preferred to eat and how they socialized with other drivers. One driver showed me how he exercised by walking around his truck and different sites during his down-time. It was amazing how many other drivers they knew and could identify on the road just by their trucks. As we drove along, they pointed out everyone they knew and gave me such incredibly detailed information on the local ins and outs of the trucking industry.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced in your field work?
N: I think that trying to interview a mobile, busy workforce is incredibly difficult. Added to that difficulty was the challenge of gaining entry and trust from the quite insular and wary workforce of the trucking industry.
Q: What changes, if any, are taking place and what questions should we be thinking about for the future?
N: There are many changes taking place in truck-driving across the geographical scale, from PEI on up to continentally. The technological changes that have taken place in the trucking industry since the 1980s continue. Currently, technology to track trucks in real time is becoming increasingly prevalent and is likely to eventually be mandated into law across North America, with the focus on ensuring that hours of service are followed. Along with this surveillance technology, speed regulators have become law in some jurisdictions, and this may also become more commonplace. However, these technologies raise many questions about changes to the autonomy of truck drivers and also about how these technologies fit within an industry that increasingly demands quicker driving times with just-in-time deliveries.
I think the above issues also need to be considered in relation to the current and forecasted labour shortage in truck driving. Canada has a heavy reliance on trucking as a means for moving goods, not just internally but also with our largest trading partner, the United States. Thus, questions about current and possibly future labour shortages in the industry are extremely important.
Q: How has your perspective changed (if it has) since your involvement in this research with On the Move?
N: I think my involvement in the On the Move Partnership has given me a much broader perspective on the kinds of employment-related mobility taking place in Canada, and the many ways in which they are inter-related. Also, as I mentioned, my perspective on the trucking industry in particular has changed significantly, from one in which it seemed peripheral to an understanding of just how much it impacts all of our daily lives in a multitude of ways.