Trucking Calls Out for More Young Drivers

Trucking Calls Out for More Young Drivers
Butch Rice

Small sample pilot programs aren’t going to solve any driver shortage problem in the trucking industry.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced a pilot program earlier this month in which a group of military veterans aged 18-21, all of whom have to have heavy vehicle training, would be allowed to drive trucks across state lines in order to study their safety capabilities against a group of older drivers. Currently, drivers 21 or younger aren’t allowed to cross state lines.

Finding more drivers is a constant concern of trucking companies. A 2015 report by the American Trucking Associations predicted a shortage of as many as 175,000 by 2024.

The program was authorized by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in December, and the FMCSA hopes to find 200 suitable volunteers for the experiment. Sad to say, though, the pilot program doesn’t appear to be much of a solution.

There aren’t a lot of military veterans who are younger than 21. If the pilot group proves safe enough for interstate travel, so what? Adding a few hundred new drivers to the nation’s pool is a drop in a growing bucket.

The solution, of course, is to get more young people interested in driving trucks as a career, but that is fraught with problems. Drivers younger than 22 are currently not allowed, almost universally in the United States, to cross state lines.

Even if that were somehow allowed, many trucking companies can’t hire them because of insurance mandates. Butch Rice, chairman of the Arkansas Trucking Association, is also the CEO of Stallion Transportation Group of Beebe, and he can’t hire any driver who doesn’t have two years of experience.

“They have to be at least 21 and [have] a history of driving,” Rice said. “For us, it’s going to take at least a 23- or 24-year-old.”

And therein lies the rub. When welders and machinists are in high demand, those industries have put the hammer down to attract new recruits to those fields.

Trucking can’t do the same. If trucking companies have to wait until drivers are in their 20s, they will continue to find that those prospects have moved on to other careers.

Rice, who employs 68 drivers, said he is not saying that he wants an 18-year-old driver making deliveries to Chicago or Dallas. But he wants the ability to bring those prospects into his company, expose them to the industry and get them some experience in the cab of a truck, as a co-driver to an experienced mentor.

Otherwise, he knows Stallion and hundreds of other trucking companies will lose any chance at those young adults.

“We’re having to wait for them,” Rice said. “For me, it’s not so much their age; it’s the experience part. If you could put them in a pilot program where they went through the schools and then they had to drive six months with a co-driver — even if it was like a two-year program — they would still be learning the industry.

“There’s no doubt how expensive it is going to be, but the average costs of replacing a driver is around $15,000. I’d rather have a guy who is committed and do it that way. You’re just hoping they stay with you.”

Rice said that type of program would put more prospective drivers in the pool but there would have to be a commitment from the driver. If a company paid for the license and training and then guided the driver through the apprenticeship, then the driver would be required to stay with the company for a time after earning full-driver status.

“We have to convince our insurance companies that it is OK,” Rice said. “Right now no one is sitting around the dinner table and the dad is saying, ‘Now, son, when you graduate, you need to be thinking about driving a truck.’ Nobody is saying that. Nobody.

“We need to get in at the front end of that conversation: ‘Do you want to be a welder or truck driver?’ We’re not even in that conversation.”

Rice said that’s the crux of the driver shortage problem: so many people entering the job market without giving trucking even a passing thought.

“We’re going to have to do something. The driver shortage gets worse every day,” Rice said. “It makes you want to sit in the corner and suck your thumb.”