The trucking industry’s yearslong shortage of licensed tractor-trailer drivers is getting a federal boost as part of a $1 trillion infrastructure package.
The bipartisan bill, signed into law by President Joe Biden in November, puts $550 billion of new funds into transportation, broadband and utilities. Part of that package is aimed to draw younger drivers into the trucking industry to ease national supply chain issues.
The bill establishes a three-year pilot apprenticeship program allowing commercial truck drivers 18-20 years old to drive across state lines, as long as an experienced driver is in the passenger seat. Currently, truckers who cross state lines must be at least 21 years old.
Industry trade group American Trucking Associations supports the measure as a way to help with a low driver supply, estimating the nation is 80,000 drivers short – a number it says could double by 2030.
The pilot program is part of a series of actions announced in December by the White House as part of its Trucking Action Plan. The plan includes expediting the commercial driver’s license process, a 90-day challenge to expand registered apprenticeships, and outreach and recruitment focused on veterans.
“A strong, stable and safe trucking workforce that offers good-paying jobs to millions of truck drivers is a critical lifeblood of our economy,” the Biden administration said in a statement. “But outdated infrastructure, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a historic volume of goods moving through our economy have strained capacity across the supply chain, including in trucking.”
Mark Walker, CEO and president of Strafford-based trucking company TransLand, said the labor problem in his industry is nothing new, but the truck driver shortage issue has only gotten worse in recent years.
“As our driving force continues to age, we see more retirements,” he said, noting TransLand employs 180 drivers among its 230-person workforce. “We have as many openings as we can find drivers.”
He’s supportive of the pilot program as it will provide data to determine if allowing younger drivers to participate in interstate commerce is a good move on a permanent basis.
“It has lots of promise,” Walker said. “Given the parameters of the apprenticeship pilot program, you’re going to see some really talented, skilled folks come out of that that meet our safety standards.”
Walker said the program is “a natural extension” of the current intrastate driving that age group is already doing.
“With the proper training and coaching, 18- to 20-year-olds have the potential to be highly competent at handling equipment,” he said. “They’re doing it on our nation’s farms today. … But it does require this notion of apprenticeship and additional coaching, evaluation and support.”
Under the apprenticeship, younger drivers can drive outside their home state during 120-hour and 280-hour probationary periods under a mentor’s supervision, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Trucks used in the program must have an electronic braking crash mitigation system, a forward-facing video camera, and speeds must be limited to 65 mph. After probation, they can drive on their own, but companies must monitor their performance until they are 21. No more than 3,000 apprentices can take part in the training at any given time nationwide.
Trucking companies that would like to participate in the pilot program must complete an application for participation and submit monthly data on an apprentice’s driver activity, safety outcomes and any additional supporting information, such as onboard monitoring systems, according to the federal guidance. Carriers also must register an apprenticeship program with the U.S. Department of Labor. No timeline or costs for the program have been announced.
Tracy Polk, skills supervisor with the Missouri Job Center, said the city of Springfield agency helps make daily connections for job seekers and companies with truck driving jobs. Trucking companies frequently participate in the center’s job fair events.
“We have an increase of people wanting to go into truck driver training,” she said.
That boost came after the Job Center hosted a virtual information session in January to promote trucking apprenticeship programs. Polk said the agency has received a lot of phone calls in the weeks since inquiring about truck driving schools.
“There is eligibility criteria that my case managers will go over to see which funding source they could be paid for out of,” she said, noting local truck driving training costs range $4,250-$5,700 for programs that run three or four weeks.
She said truck driving schools in the Springfield area include 160 Driving Academy, C1 Truck Driver Training, Midwest Technical Institute Inc., Ozarks Driving Institute LLC and Truck Dynasty Driving Academy LLC.
“Once they graduate and go on to a job, we still follow up with them,” Polk said. “It’s part of our performance when we pay for someone to go through training.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay in 2020 for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers was $47,130.
“The reality is a truck driver job is very difficult,” Walker said, acknowledging turnover is another major factor for the industry. “You are gone from home for a week or two or three weeks at a time for the over-the-road jobs. You live in your truck for that period of time. You drive anywhere from eight to 11 hours a day. You just repeat that day after day.”
Additionally, the trucking workforce is aging. A 2019 report from the American Trucking Associations said the average age was 46.
According to the organization’s quarterly employment report, the turnover rate in the third quarter of 2021 at large truckload fleets, comprising those with more than $30 million in annual revenue, jumped nine points to an annualized rate of 96%. Turnover at smaller carriers also rose six points to 73% from the lowest level since 2011.
Walker said TransLand’s turnover rate is significantly lower, annually averaging between 48% and 52%. The company tries to be competitive with pay and incentives, with a $50,000-$85,000 per year average as well as sign-on and recruitment bonuses.
Still, hiring challenges persist. There’s a limited number of qualified applicants, as some prospective job applicants have issues pop up with their driving record, background checks or work history, he said.
“We’re able to hire about 10% of the people that apply here for driving. It’s been slow and there’s been very few applicants the last year,” he said. “We’ve been going through about 100 applications a month. Usually, we’d see about 200-300 applicants per month.”
This is the fourth hangar at the Springfield-Branson National Airport for OzAir Charter Service.