18 year olds: Attracting the best teens to trucking

18 year olds: Attracting the best teens to trucking

One reason some carriers want to lower the CDL age to 18: getting a chance to recruit from “the front of the class” among high school students.

Though 18 year-olds are already allowed to obtain commercial driver licenses (CDLs) and operate heavy truck within a state’s borders, they cannot drive such vehicles between states – an interstate restriction many safety groups want to keep in place.

Yet one reason many carriers want to lift that interstate restriction on CDLs, aside from dealing with the current and growing shortage of truck drivers, is that it would help them recruit from a potentially better cohort of driver applicants as well.

“The reality is we’ve got a smaller workforce overall and we’re losing kids out of high school aged 18 to 21 to other careers – it’s simply harder to then attract them away from jobs they already have,” noted Derek Leathers, president and COO of Werner Enterprises last month at the annual FTR Transportation Conference.

“It’s a fairly simple concept: providing a graduated CDL for 18 year olds allows us to recruit from the front of the class – and gives us a better chance of getting a qualified driver,” he explained. “Waiting three years to recruit them instead gives us only the back of the class.”

Leathers also believes the “gutting” of vocational programs at high schools across America over the last two decades is another factor complicating trucking’s overall labor recruitment task.

“Those programs do not exist anymore; they took them all out of the high school system,” he said. “So we have no welders and no diesel mechanics. Yet [most] that go on to college are now coming out to sit on a big debt pile while working at McDonalds.”

Kevin Tomlinson, director of maintenance for South Shore Transportation Co., also stressed at the FTR meeting that giving trucking a “first crack” at high school graduates for driver and maintenance technician careers is key to helping beef the industry’s workforce now and in the future.

“If we cannot change the rules so a guy can go to work in our industry at a younger age, then we become a second career to them; they’ve got to stop doing their first job first and many don’t want to do that,” he said

Tomlinson added that not only does the CDL interstate rule need to change, but that trucking companies may actually need to start their recruiting process among even younger age groups.

“We must get to them while they are that tall, when they still love trucks and honking the big air horn,” holding his hand three feet off the ground for emphasis to represent elementary-aged schoolkids.

“We need to get alongside the grade schools when they are 10 years old and still love trucks,” Tomlinson emphasized. “We also need to let them know what we as an industry can offer them. Kids can go to college, come out $150,000 in debt, and go work at McDonalds. Or don’t go to college, come drive or turn wrenches for us, and start out making $55,000 with no debt.”

Yet Werner’s Leathers held out little hope that resistance to removing the interstate operating restriction on 18 to 21 year-old CDL holders will end anytime soon.

“Safety groups say that the graduated driver’s license has been one of the greatest safety benefits among teenaged car drivers, yet they are fighting that same graduated licensing plan for trucking,” he said. “I think it will remain vocal opposition; a fight to the end.”

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