Trucks at Work
Apprenticeship programs might attract more young people to trucking But autonomous trucks could scare them off too Photo Sean KilcarrFleet Owner

Apprenticeship programs might attract more young people to trucking. But autonomous trucks could scare them off, too. (Photo: Sean Kilcarr/Fleet Owner)

Could apprenticeship programs bring more youngsters into trucking?

This particular thought has been bandied about the trucking industry for some time now: allowing 18 to 21 year olds, under close supervision, to drive commercial trucks.

Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) acknowledged to me at the recent TMW Systems and PeopleNet 2017 in.sight user conference and exposition that the trade group plans to push for the establishment of an apprentice program that would allow the trucking industry to “capture” 18 year old high school graduates and train them as drivers.

“We’re losing the 18 to 21 year olds to other industries,” he explained as the reason why ATA plans to make a concerted effort to get the federal government behind its apprenticeship plan.

“We’re going to need 960,000 people for our industry as drivers over the next decade,” Spear emphasized. “We need to think outside of the box; we do a disservice to our industry if we don’t.”

Spear added that when he work in the Department of Labor during the George W. Bush’s presidency, he noted that the agency provided workforce training “grants” to a variety of industries to the tune of $4 billion a year – and Spear believes just retooling some of that money to fund truck driver apprenticeships, especially in the inner cities of the U.S., could uncork a broader flow of candidates into the truck driver employment pool.

John Larkin. (Photo: Aaron Marsh/Fleet Owner)

But not so fast, argue others – including John Larkin, managing director and head of transportation capital markets research for Stifel Capital Markets.

In a recent research note, Larkin said “it could take several years” to gain Congressional and regulatory approval for such an apprenticeship program – “if the industry association can get any traction at all,” he added.

“Most insurance companies refuse to insure companies hiring drivers younger than 22 to 25 years old,” Larkin pointed out. Also “most of the higher quality high school graduates, who are not attending college, have developed other careers prior to becoming age eligible for a professional truck driving position.”

In addition, he noted that “all the talk of autonomous trucks is scaring away many young people from the industry. Why would a young person want to enter a profession that will soon be disrupted by technology?”

Yet Larkin also emphasized that widespread adoption of autonomous trucks might be several decades, or more, away – leaving the trucking industry facing yet another challenge, that of “getting that message across to young people” who might consider a career as a professional truck driver if they were not going to eventually be replaced by self-driving machines.

It’s a ticklish problem, no doubt: one of many bedeviling industry efforts to find, recruit, and retain good safety-conscious truck drivers. And it’s an effort that will need to be sustained for a long time to come.

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