A youth-driven approach to the driver shortage

Nothing fires up the trucking community like a strong opinion on the driver shortage. From its inception, FreightWaves waded into the conversation, balancing perspectives from both ends of the continuum. We considered the American Trucking Associations’ (ATA’s) perspective that there is an ever-expanding dearth of quality drivers, especially for midsize to large carriers. We considered the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association’s (OOIDA’s) point of view that it is essentially a driver pay issue. (The median base salary of a truck driver is around $59,000, according to Indeed.com, but there are massive disparities between sectors and regions.)

FreightWaves CEO and founder Craig Fuller wrote last September that the industry doesn’t need to add to capacity when it has too much of it, and, therefore, the for-hire market doesn’t have a driver shortage at all.

We have also looked at the variety of industry concerns related to the driver shortage, or “squeeze,” as FreightWaves has referred to it. These include issues such as lack of parking, challenges of getting good sleep, and poor eating options. We’ve considered the issue of culture and basic respect, as well as what happens in a time of dense — followed by loose — capacity. We’ve looked at the issue of detention, reporting on “shippers of choice,” and celebrated technology that seeks to cut down on detention time, increase visibility and efficiency, and otherwise reduce wasted time. We’ve evaluated different models of driver pay as well. And for those who fundamentally believe there is a dearth of qualified drivers, we’ve explored how targeting certain underrepresented demographics like women and military veterans could help — and the persistent challenges of recruiting from those groups.

Throughout all of the coverage, analysis and interpretation, one significant structural issue has continued to affect the available pool of qualified drivers: the aging driver workforce. The most recent ATRI report on the state of the driver shortage, released in July 2019, cites the ATA’s survey finding that 46 is the typical age in the for-hire, over-the-road truckload industry. They also observe that “other trucking sectors have an even higher average age, like less-than-truckload and private carriers,” and that while the real or perceived driver shortage is not the same across all sectors, “the high average age still affects the overall shortage.”

As FreightWaves’ Alan Adler reported this past October from the ATA’s Management Conference and Exhibition in San Diego, quoting USA Truck Inc. CEO James Reed during a panel discussion:

“The average age of a driver trainee is 35 years old. … Rather than seeking trucking as a career in their 20s, young people pursue other options. As they marry and start families, the permanence of a trucking career as ‘a real job’ becomes appealing.”

So, how does the industry address the issue and break the cycle — especially without a one-size-fits-all solution?

In September 2017, Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., introduced the Waiving Hindrances to Economic Enterprise and Labor (WHEEL) Act. As outlined in the proposal, the pilot program would last three years.

Safety institutions strongly opposed the introduction of a bill that would train 18- to 20-year-olds to drive on interstates rather than only on intrastate roads. The Truck Safety Coalition (TSC) told FreightWaves at the time that the legislation “is a misguided attempt to address a perceived shortage of truck drivers, which is, in actuality, a driver retention and turnover problem.” They say it will only make our roads less safe and “do nothing to address issues like entry-level driver training, unpaid detention time, and available and safe truck parking.” Back and forth the arguments went.

Although the WHEEL Act has not proceeded past its introduction in 2017, a similar program has arrived through the The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

The FMCSA recently opened a new part of its website to help 18- to 20-year-olds who possess the U.S. military equivalent of a commercial driver’s license find and apply for jobs with interstate trucking companies. During the up-to-three-year pilot program, the safety records of these drivers will be compared to the records of a control group of drivers to determine if a one- to three-year difference in drivers’ ages is a critical safety factor. As of this writing, nearly two dozen interstate trucking companies with headquarters ranging from Oregon to Massachusetts have posted openings on the FMCSA site.

John Kearney is CEO of Advanced Training Systems LLC (ATS). Kearney’s company designs and manufactures virtual simulators for driver training, among other applications. “I firmly believe that the results of this study will demonstrate that 18- to 20-year-olds — properly trained — are mature enough to be skilled and safe commercial truck drivers.”

Given these numbers, and given that nearly two-thirds of American high school graduates do not go to college but begin their working careers at about age 18, it makes sense that future truck drivers would enroll in high school vocational education programs.

One rapidly growing such initiative is the Truck Driving Program offered by Patterson High School in Patterson, California. With the support of national and local trucking fleets and the school’s superintendent, and aided by government grants, Patterson High’s program uses a textbook and ATS driving simulators to lay the groundwork for enrollment in a standard commercial driver’s license training program.

There are, notes ATS’s Kearney, over 24,000 public high schools in the United States producing an estimated 3.3 million graduates each year, of whom about 2 million will bypass college and go directly into the workforce.

“They can and they will,” Kearney said. “One of the keys to driver safety is simulation, which solves a classic training dilemma: How do you safely prepare trainees to deal with dangerous situations?

Patterson High is the first high school in the country to adopt this technology, and it is working on raising the bar for training. If the program succeeds, it will move on to the state level. Kearney wants to train the students properly, for “the new generation of drivers we so badly need.”

Will it make trucking cool again? Maybe not, but it could make it safer and more accessible to a younger population, and that’s a start.