Carriers have been scrambling more than ever before to acquire new truck drivers as the industry continues experiencing what seems like a never-ending trucker shortage. From pay boosts, added benefits, and sign-on bonuses to potential initiatives allowing drivers under the age of 21 to begin operating commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce, the methods of expanding the pool of available truck drivers are changing constantly. The latest attempt: recruiting young drivers out of high school.
“What we’re trying to do, as a nonprofit trade association, is raise awareness of the trucking industry,” said Lindsey Trent, president of The Next Generation in Trucking Association. “We’re doing that in several ways. Recently, I gave a presentation to the American School Counselor Association, so all of the school counselors across the United States got to hear a general presentation about the trucking industry and the different jobs that are in trucking.”
Next Generation’s aim is to change stereotypes around the tucking profession that many professionals–and parents–believe. According to Trent, the main mindset the association would like to change is that the only path to success is a college-to-workforce path that often comes with high amounts of student loans, and therefore, debt.
“We’re not about pushing students into this industry [quickly],” said Dave Dien, Next Generation board member and teacher at Patterson High School in Patterson, California. “We want to make sure that those who choose this industry are well-fitted and they have the proper skills and foundation to do well.”
For the last five years, students at Patterson High have been able to enroll in the Next Generation program during their senior year and acquire a commercial driver license. As of now, 20 of the school’s students are enrolled in the program, which requires 180 hours of classroom instruction, 110 hours of training behind the wheel, and an additional 30 hours of training in a truck-driving simulator.
Now, the program is working to allow junior-year students to enroll in the program as soon as next year, which would offer them an additional 200 hours of instruction in a classroom setting before progressing to commercial driver license training, specifically.
According to Trent, Next Generation has adapted its curriculum to be flexible enough for a majority of school districts, with schools across the country showing interest in incorporating it into their career guidance programs.
“There’s a buzz about it now,” said Dein. “The best word that advertises is word-of-mouth. Students who have graduated [from] the program–they’re finding success in the industry. There [have been] a lot more students that want to take the class because they hear about it.”
With the available flexibility the program offers, “it seems that it has changed the mindset of what they thought trucking was about,” Dein said in regards to students enrolled in the program.
Because the DRIVE-Safe Act has been signed into law by President Biden, Trent and Dein predict that even more students will begin to find interest in their program and in the trucking industry as a whole. Part of the DRIVE-Safe Act’s initiative is the pilot program allowing drivers between the ages of 18 and 21 to drive interstate in commercial motor vehicles.
“Once you have 18-year-olds driving interstate, we feel that the next step is really going after that career and technical education funding to build programs at the state level,” said Don Lefeve, board member of Next Generation and former CEO of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association. “That’s working not only to get them interested while in high school, but really to partner with community colleges and private truck schools that may be in their area to help deliver the skills training for them.”
Attempts to increase interest among young drivers is common, but many safety advocates worry that such young, inexperienced drivers lack the maturity or patience needed to work as a safe truck driver. Addressing the driver shortage is important, of course–but the safety of American roadways should always remain top priority, noted Levinson and Stefani’s Ken Levinson.
“You can’t give the key to an 80,000-pound, dangerous truck to an inexperienced driver,” he said. “There is no substitute for good experience–you don’t just pick up driving right away. A car–let alone a commercial vehicle–is way too dangerous to operate without sufficient experience. There’s a certain maturity that it takes to drive a vehicle with this amount of weight and complexity. They’re not easy vehicles to operate, and companies need to be very cautious about bending safety rules despite the pressures to hire new drivers.”