Class 1 licensing problems need to be addressed, say farm leaders

Costly new training requirements and testing backlog among the issues facing many farmers

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More than a dozen farm groups in Alberta are calling on the province to further delay the implementation of new Class 1 licensing rules, and find ways to make it less costly for those farmers and their workers seeking one.

Those new training rules — called Mandatory Entry Level Training (MELT) — were brought in by the previous NDP government following the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, which killed 16 people in April 2018. The accident prompted reviews of driver training standards in the trucking industry throughout Canada. In Alberta, extensive training is now required to obtain a Class 1 licence for driving a tractor trailer (a truck with three or more axles using air brakes).

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A year ago, the government quietly exempted farmers and farm workers who had recently applied for a Class 1 licence. They were supposed to apply for that exemption no later than Nov. 30, 2020 and had until March 1, 2021 to complete their training and take the road test. (Those who had a Class 1 licence prior to Oct. 11, 2018 did not have to meet the MELT requirements while those who got a Class 1 licence between that date and Feb. 28, 2019 won’t need to take the training if they have a clean driving record during their two-year probationary period.)

But the situation facing farmers and farm workers seeking a licence now isn’t good, the leaders of 11 farm groups wrote in a recent letter to Premier Jason Kenney.

“The far-reaching disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has diminished the benefit of the extension period,” their letter states. “As the November 30, 2020 deadline to apply for the extension approaches, we want to update you on a number of concerns related to MELT that not only impact farmers and farm workers, but many other industries and Albertans.”

The letter cites several concerns, including a backlog for training and testing made worse by the pandemic.

“Farmers were frustrated with long wait times to book road tests, the limited number of appointments within their local areas, and the limited openings and wait lists at driver training schools.”

And the price tag for training, up to $10,000, is “cost prohibitive for farm businesses because seasonal farm work provides limited full-time employment for Albertans and fierce competition for truck drivers makes it difficult for farms to retain employees long term,” the farm leaders say in their letter.

As well, someone seeking a Class 1 licence isn’t eligible for student aid.

“Financial need should not be a barrier for Albertans who need this skill for their career path,” states the letter, which asks the province to take action on several fronts.

Those requests include moving the deadline for asking for an exemption to Dec. 31; giving people until Sept. 1 of next year to pass the MELT testing; allowing applicants to access student aid; having more testing in rural areas; and lowering the cost of training. (The latter could be done by reducing the minimum number of instruction hours by 10 per cent and allowing some training to be done online or via virtual reality technology, the letter states.)

While “farmers unequivocally support safer roads,” this issue affects the “competitiveness of Alberta’s agriculture sector and rural communities will benefit from a practical approach to addressing these concerns.”

The letter is signed by the chairs of organizations representing canola, wheat, barley, pulse, oats, potato, and sugar beet growers as well as those representing cattle producers and feeders and those in the pork, milk and poultry sectors.

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