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Young Truck Driver

Opinion: Trucking ready and waiting for under-21 apprentices

May 5, 2022
The industry wants this pilot program, but the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration needs to get it in gear.

The spring conference season has begun—and already I have traveled around the country meeting carrier executives and other trucking professionals and have engaged them on what fleets are going through in hauling freight today.

“Essentiality”—That’s become the word of the day as the focus on availability of truck drivers has been prevalent in just about every one of these discussions. The pandemic has placed our drivers at the front of the line in terms of desperately needed workforce growth, and no stone has gone unturned looking for new opportunities to attract people to this terrific career.

See also: Debate continues for under-21 program

For the most part, the pandemic environment that our drivers have been operating in has waned, regulations and restrictions are being lifted, and trucking can get back to business as usual. But wait! Trucking during the pandemic WAS business as usual, striving to fulfill demand that the nation placed on our fleets to deliver desperately needed goods. Those empty store shelves in most cases reflected a lack of available products—not our ability to deliver—so if you were able to buy it, a truck had faithfully brought it to you.

The driver shortage remains at the top of almost everyone’s mind, with many executives looking to grow their fleets and haul freight, while others simply maintain there is no driver shortage. But even the White House is highlighting the need for professional drivers and the progress of the industry’s apprenticeship programs, reflective of how essential our drivers have become. Regardless of your position on this issue, most would agree that finding more people to place behind the wheel is paramount to the growth of our economy.

As an industry, we are now partaking in the creation of strong apprenticeship programs designed to attract and retain talent that focus on the training and educational aspect of making the safest drivers on the road today even safer.

Reflecting the minimum requirements of entry-level driver training, which the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has finally made live, these apprenticeships seek to attract people of all ages to become pro truckers. However, on the heels of an announcement that highlighted these programs that training providers have agreed to participate in, we still wait for the prospect of finding younger drivers, ages 18 to 20, to become involved in this program.

The demographic of a younger driver to operate in interstate commerce can represent a viable path to a rewarding career for a younger generation just out of high school—and fleets are anxious to bring them into the industry. However, the wait continues for FMCSA to put forward the pilot program that was conceived by the Trump administration but included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that the current administration championed, and that President Biden signed into law last fall. Ensuring this is a viable pilot program is one thing but having to continue to wait on the program is another altogether.

Traditionally, trucking has been a private industry that has moved on things well before regulation requires—and the training of this demographic for interstate commerce is no exception. We are prepared to welcome 18- to 20-year-olds into the fold of the driver ranks, yet we wait for the agency to move on a program that will eventually come.

I get it. As an industry, we can already hire these potential drivers into the ranks of our drivers. However, without the federal pilot program and endorsement from FMCSA, 18- to 20-year-olds can only haul freight within their states—a market that is not what it used to be—and they are prohibited from crossing state lines. Certainly, the pilot program will limit the demographic to 3,000 participants (a drop in the bucket of what the industry would like), but it’s a good start. However, a start is what needs to happen.

The new rules for training drivers, emphasized by the development of these apprenticeship programs, have been designed without age in mind, meaning an 18-year-old driver will train to the same standards as someone who is 40. As an industry that continues to focus on the safe performance of these drivers, coupled by the White House expectations of attracting new people to this industry, the time is now for FMCSA to expedite this program so every demographic can literally get moving.

About the Author

David Heller

David Heller is the senior vice president of safety and government affairs for the Truckload Carriers Association. Heller has worked for TCA since 2005, initially as director of safety, and most recently as the VP of government affairs. Before that, he spent seven years as manager of safety programs for American Trucking Associations.

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