Kevin Jones / FleetOwner
Mats Apprenticeships 2

Driver apprenticeships prove effective, but ...

April 1, 2022
Fleets need to make the job of truck driver more attractive—or even the best recruiting efforts will go to waste.

LOUISVILLE—While apprenticeships are another tool in the trucking industry’s driver recruitment and training toolkit, they’re just a patch for the driver turnover leak. Fleets would be better served by first making the position more accommodating, explained David Pike, recruiting director for NFI Industries.

“I don't necessarily believe there is a shortage of drivers in our business—I personally believe that there's a shortage of jobs they are willing to take,” Pike said to applause from attendees at the Mid-America Trucking Show here, predominantly truck drivers and family members.

See more:  As fleets seek future drivers, TCA backs federal apprenticeship program

Pike was the large-carrier panelist for a joint session by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the U.S. Department of Labor. The discussion on apprenticeships in trucking was presented by FASTPORT, a Labor Department intermediary specializing in transportation and logistics that administers the program for the participating companies.

A U.S. Marine Corps veteran who’s worked in transportation since he left the military in 1993, Pike characterized the evolution of driver recruiting as “remarkable.” And while he credited the Biden administration’s “lightspeed” implementation of the recent 90 Day Challenge to promote the apprenticeship model for getting more well-trained drivers on the road, it’s only “a piece of the puzzle.”

Carriers need to recognize that most people aren’t cut out to live on the road for weeks at a time, and putting new drivers in cross-country positions is not a good retention strategy, Pike explained.

“But when you have 90% of your drivers home every day in dedicated roles, it's not that hard to fill those roles,” he said. “And if you're paying good money—$80,000-$90,000, and now with the wage increases through the pandemic, we see a lot of our drivers making near $100,000—do you think it's hard to fill those positions? Lord no.

“There's not a waiting line—don't get me wrong. But at the end of the day, I'm not trying to fill a truck with a new driver who had no clue how to spell ‘truck’ last week but now, as a driver this week, they’re going into an over-the-road lifestyle and they're not sure where they're going to take a bath or use the restroom or why they can't go through the drive-thru.”

See also: What carriers need to know about FMCSA’s driver apprenticeship program

And while an apprenticeship program can be the first step in getting new drivers into trucks, he emphasized the need to bring back drivers who have left the industry.

“That's a piece of the puzzle that we're all missing: There's a lot of folks out here who have come in, maybe stayed three weeks, three months or a year, then left the industry,” Pike said. “As we continue to explore how to grow our industry, we've really got to continue to preach those things that are going to set a driver up for success—whether it's the consistency in their home time, whether it's the consistency in their paychecks, whether it's the routes that they pull.

“We have to be cognizant that we're dealing with human beings, and show a little humility and compassion to our driving ranks.”

And, to that end, trucking needs to reexamine how it moves freight, he suggested. While getting fresh California produce to grocery stores in the East requires long-haul routes, “more and more carriers” are developing different models and moving away from traditional OTR.

“NFI did almost 12 years ago, and it's been a life-changer,” Pike said. “Because when you do that, drivers will come. You offer good paychecks, good consistency, good treatment, good home time. Then you will not have a problem keeping your fleets full.”

Apprenticeships 'good for business'

The MATS session opened with a video greeting from Angela Hanks, acting assistant secretary of the Employment and Training Administration at the Labor Department. She called the just-concluded 90 Day Challenge an “astounding success” and said that the administration will detail the program’s accomplishments in the coming days. However, she did reveal that more than 90 employers over those 90 days developed and launched new apprenticeship programs, with another 50 set to launch.

“This is just a start, but a critical step forward to build a sustainable talent pipeline and increase diversity in the trucking industry and build the next generation trucking workforce that our communities and economies depend on,” Hanks said. “This is incredible progress in a short period of time and reflects the power of partnership. Trucking apprenticeships are good for business, with a 92% retention rate and a proven rate of return on investment.”

Indeed, FASTPORT’s Dave Harrison, executive director for workforce development, government programs, and military employment issues, detailed the organization's track record of success with apprenticeship programs:

  • 307 apprentices onboarded with new employers from the 90 Day Challenge.
  • More than 17,000 apprentices trained since early 2017.
  • 57% of apprentices are minorities.
  • Apprentices represent triple the number of women in proportion to the industry as a whole.
  • Apprentices have 15% to 18% fewer vehicle inspection violations than any other entry point, up to one year in the industry.

“And our retention rate is higher than anything else that enters the transportation, distribution, and logistics space. Those employers we work with are trying to bring about the industry gold standard of training,” Harrison said, and he named the various trucking trade groups that have pledged to support the standard. “There's no one single answer [to driver retention]. But what we do know is we have to get more people in the space; we have to train to a higher caliber; we have to wrap our arms around them and give them a safe place to work.”

See also: Caveats of FMCSA's under-21 driver program

Mark Darcy, executive director of the National Association of Publicly Funded Truck Driving Schools, noted that many of the association’s members are “ahead of the curve” regarding the training standards. The biggest challenge for the schools is the lack of funding for driver training courses.

“We see a lot of people coming into our schools that need financial aid, which is limited because it's normally continuing education,” Darcy said. “So let's back up a little bit and look at funding to get that person to the point where they even can become an apprentice.”

He noted that the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) is up for reauthorization this year, and he encouraged people in the trucking industry to contact their representatives in Congress to make sure driver training will be included in the program.

Chattanooga, Tennessee-based S.H.E. Trucking Founder and CEO Sharae Moore started an apprenticeship program in 2019. Her company’s mission focuses on “women empowering women in nontraditional careers.”

“I knew you couldn't just pivot into trucking without financing,” she said. “I was an apprentice myself and went through an apprenticeship program. I wanted to offer the opportunity to others.”

ATA Road Team Captain and Penske Logistics driver Earl Taylor, a U.S. Army veteran, explained that an apprenticeship program is an excellent option for men and women who leave the service without “a clear focus” on what to do next. He noted that he’d had “no direction” after the Army, but veterans could receive a chauffeur’s license and get a driving job if they knew "how to use a turn signal."

“But we're changing that, and the standard is high—safety is very important,” Taylor said. “But we really want to make it easier for someone that doesn't have a career focus to develop one, and still get paid to do it.”

About the Author

Kevin Jones | Editor

Kevin has served as editor-in-chief of Trailer/Body Builders magazine since 2017—just the third editor in the magazine’s 60 years. He is also editorial director for Endeavor Business Media’s Commercial Vehicle group, which includes FleetOwner, Bulk Transporter, Refrigerated Transporter, American Trucker, and Fleet Maintenance magazines and websites.

Working from Little Rock, Kevin has covered trucking and manufacturing for 15 years. His writing and commentary about the trucking industry and, previously, business and government, has been recognized with numerous state, regional, and national journalism awards.

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