The trucking industry has been divided on the push to let 16-year-old drivers operate interstate trucks. Some companies are pushing for the change, while others argue that it would be too dangerous and could lead to fatal crashes.
Proposed legislation to allow individuals as young as 18 years old to drive large trucks over state lines is revealing a split in the trucking industry, where businesses are struggling to recruit employees for the arduous task of transporting products over vast distances.
A proposal in the Senate’s August infrastructure package would establish a pilot program enabling 18- to 20-year-olds to drive tractor-trailers across state borders. Although most states allow minors under the age of 21 to get commercial driver’s licenses, federal regulations limit such drivers to operate only inside state boundaries.
The move, according to some in the business, may help increase the pool of potential drivers. Others, though, argue that it would fail to address the root causes of people leaving trucking for blue-collar jobs like construction. Those problems include difficult working conditions and compensation that is insufficient to compensate for lengthy hours behind the wheel and time spent away from home.
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“You haven’t really resolved that issue if you have holes in the bucket, no matter how much water you put in the top of the bucket, if it’s running out as fast at the bottom as it is at the top,” Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents independent owners of single trucks and small fleets, said.
According to the organization, there is no real driver shortage, as many trucking firms claim. The organization said in a recent letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo that hundreds of thousands of individuals get commercial driver’s licenses each year, and that driver turnover, not supply, is the issue, as new recruits test out the industry and then depart for other jobs.
According to Bill Sullivan, executive vice president of lobbying for the American Trucking Associations, which represents trucking firms, the pilot program will show that young individuals can safely drive tractor-trailers interstate.
Proponents of lowering the federal age limit argue that many young commercial-driver’s-license holders already drive long distances within large states such as Texas and California, and that the proposed apprenticeship program’s 400 hours of training would add another layer of safety above and beyond what is required to obtain a commercial license.
The issue, according to truck drivers, is not so much money as it is the difficult life on the road.
Shutterstock photo by cj gunther
Highway safety experts worry that long-distance monitoring is lacking, and that placing teenage drivers behind the wheel of large trucks would make roads even more hazardous. They cite a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that shows adolescents are much more likely than older drivers to accident.
“They call it a trial program, but it’s essentially a foot in the door to alter the laws for their fictitious driver shortage,” said Russ Swift, whose son died in a 1993 accident in which a truck driven by an 18-year-old became trapped on a road following an attempted U-turn.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, trucking employment dropped significantly at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last year and remained below pre-pandemic levels this summer. Some sectors have cited a shortage of truck drivers as a barrier to restocking and recovering from the epidemic, and many transportation companies believe the slow recovery in trucking employment underscores long-standing issues with attracting and keeping drivers.
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Finding people to drive trucks has been complicated by issues such as the federal database that tracks drug and alcohol violations by commercial driver’s license holders, as well as the relatively quick recovery of blue-collar sectors like construction, according to Avery Vise, a vice president at transportation research firm FTR.
“In the best of times, we would always have several hundred job openings,” said Derek Leathers, CEO of Werner Enterprises Inc., a large truckload carrier based in Omaha, Neb. But, he added, the business currently has over 500 employment vacancies, with long-haul drivers being the most difficult to fill. Werner, like many other businesses, is seeking to recruit more drivers by providing better compensation, but ensuring they get home on time is also essential, he added.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the infrastructure bill’s pilot program would enable up to 3,000 drivers to participate in the test, in a heavy-duty and tractor-trailer transportation industry that employs approximately 1.8 million people. The measure is expected to be debated in the House this month.
The $3.5 trillion jobs and infrastructure package proposed by Senate Democrats is a massive bill. Gerald F. Seib of the Wall Street Journal provides a summary of the handful of clauses that are expected to be the most popular, as well as the most contentious. Todd Johnson provided the artwork for this article.
The American Trucking Association (ATA) wants the Transportation Department to lift the age restriction for interstate truck drivers under the age of 21. According to the American Transportation Research Institute, which is associated with the ATA, the industry will be 100,000 persons short of drivers by 2023, in order to replace retiring employees and meet increased freight demand. This is due to the fact that almost a third of all drivers are now over the age of 55.
The demands of the work, according to Mr. Sullivan of the ATA, are better suited to young individuals with greater energy and without families. “I believe what I wanted to accomplish and what I would put up with when I was 18 was a lot different from what I want to achieve and what I would put up with today,” he added.
According to those who have researched the sector’s labor force, expanding the pool of prospective drivers may merely lead the business to cycle through more employees as truckload carriers compete by reducing costs and keeping drivers on the road for extended periods of time.
“You can operate your trucks more effectively, in which case, particularly as they go longer distances, drivers are treated like pinballs and don’t get home very frequently; they work long hours,” said Stephen Burks, a transportation and economics professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris.
Mr. Burks and BLS Associate Commissioner Kristen Monaco wrote in a 2019 paper that truck drivers frequently shift into other blue-collar jobs such as construction and nontrucking transportation, driven by differences in pay and hours, while high turnover in long-distance trucking can create the appearance of a shortage.
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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for heavy-duty truck and tractor-trailer drivers was $48,710 in May 2020, up from $40,360 in 2012. Drivers of light trucks or vans, on the other hand, earned an average annual salary of $41,050 in May 2020, according to BLS statistics.
Drivers claim that the issue isn’t only money, but also the difficult existence on the road.
Michelle Kitchin, who has been behind the wheel for more than three decades for Byron Center, Mich.-based truckload carrier Van Eerden Trucking Co., believes that bringing in younger recruits would patch holes in the trucking labor supply. Because of the long hours, time spent waiting for freight processing at truck docks, and prolonged times away from home, truckers have a “retention problem,” she added.
“What 17-year-old is going to look at the trucking business and say, ‘When I’m 18, I want to do that?’” Ms. Kitchin had inquired.
—This article was co-written by Jennifer Smith.
Lydia O’Neal can be reached at Lydia.ONeal@wsj.com.
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