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A youth-driven approach to the driver shortage

Virtual-reality simulator training, aided by government support and local initiatives, is helping ready an urgently needed new generation of American truckers. ATS’s John Kearney says that while progress is still slow, the numbers look encouraging.

Image: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

Nothing fires up the trucking community like a strong opinion on the driver shortage. From its inception, FreightWaves waded into the conversation, balancing perspectives from both ends of the continuum. We considered the American Trucking Associations’ (ATA’s) perspective that there is an ever-expanding dearth of quality drivers, especially for midsize to large carriers. We considered the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association’s (OOIDA’s) point of view that it is essentially a driver pay issue. (The median base salary of a truck driver is around $59,000, according to, but there are massive disparities between sectors and regions.)

FreightWaves CEO and founder Craig Fuller wrote last September that the industry doesn’t need to add to capacity when it has too much of it, and, therefore, the for-hire market doesn’t have a driver shortage at all.

We have also looked at the variety of industry concerns related to the driver shortage, or “squeeze,” as FreightWaves has referred to it. These include issues such as lack of parking, challenges of getting good sleep, and poor eating options. We’ve considered the issue of culture and basic respect, as well as what happens in a time of dense — followed by loose — capacity. We’ve looked at the issue of detention, reporting on “shippers of choice,” and celebrated technology that seeks to cut down on detention time, increase visibility and efficiency, and otherwise reduce wasted time. We’ve evaluated different models of driver pay as well. And for those who fundamentally believe there is a dearth of qualified drivers, we’ve explored how targeting certain underrepresented demographics like women and military veterans could help — and the persistent challenges of recruiting from those groups.

Throughout all of the coverage, analysis and interpretation, one significant structural issue has continued to affect the available pool of qualified drivers: the aging driver workforce. The most recent ATRI report on the state of the driver shortage, released in July 2019, cites the ATA’s survey finding that 46 is the typical age in the for-hire, over-the-road truckload industry. They also observe that “other trucking sectors have an even higher average age, like less-than-truckload and private carriers,” and that while the real or perceived driver shortage is not the same across all sectors, “the high average age still affects the overall shortage.”

As FreightWaves’ Alan Adler reported this past October from the ATA’s Management Conference and Exhibition in San Diego, quoting USA Truck Inc. CEO James Reed during a panel discussion:

“The average age of a driver trainee is 35 years old. … Rather than seeking trucking as a career in their 20s, young people pursue other options. As they marry and start families, the permanence of a trucking career as ‘a real job’ becomes appealing.”

So, how does the industry address the issue and break the cycle — especially without a one-size-fits-all solution?

In September 2017, Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., introduced the Waiving Hindrances to Economic Enterprise and Labor (WHEEL) Act. As outlined in the proposal, the pilot program would last three years.

Safety institutions strongly opposed the introduction of a bill that would train 18- to 20-year-olds to drive on interstates rather than only on intrastate roads. The Truck Safety Coalition (TSC) told FreightWaves at the time that the legislation “is a misguided attempt to address a perceived shortage of truck drivers, which is, in actuality, a driver retention and turnover problem.” They say it will only make our roads less safe and “do nothing to address issues like entry-level driver training, unpaid detention time, and available and safe truck parking.” Back and forth the arguments went.

Although the WHEEL Act has not proceeded past its introduction in 2017, a similar program has arrived through the The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

The FMCSA recently opened a new part of its website to help 18- to 20-year-olds who possess the U.S. military equivalent of a commercial driver’s license find and apply for jobs with interstate trucking companies. During the up-to-three-year pilot program, the safety records of these drivers will be compared to the records of a control group of drivers to determine if a one- to three-year difference in drivers’ ages is a critical safety factor. As of this writing, nearly two dozen interstate trucking companies with headquarters ranging from Oregon to Massachusetts have posted openings on the FMCSA site.

John Kearney is CEO of Advanced Training Systems LLC (ATS). Kearney’s company designs and manufactures virtual simulators for driver training, among other applications. “I firmly believe that the results of this study will demonstrate that 18- to 20-year-olds — properly trained — are mature enough to be skilled and safe commercial truck drivers.”

Given these numbers, and given that nearly two-thirds of American high school graduates do not go to college but begin their working careers at about age 18, it makes sense that future truck drivers would enroll in high school vocational education programs.

One rapidly growing such initiative is the Truck Driving Program offered by Patterson High School in Patterson, California. With the support of national and local trucking fleets and the school’s superintendent, and aided by government grants, Patterson High’s program uses a textbook and ATS driving simulators to lay the groundwork for enrollment in a standard commercial driver’s license training program.

There are, notes ATS’s Kearney, over 24,000 public high schools in the United States producing an estimated 3.3 million graduates each year, of whom about 2 million will bypass college and go directly into the workforce.

“They can and they will,” Kearney said. “One of the keys to driver safety is simulation, which solves a classic training dilemma: How do you safely prepare trainees to deal with dangerous situations?

Patterson High is the first high school in the country to adopt this technology, and it is working on raising the bar for training. If the program succeeds, it will move on to the state level. Kearney wants to train the students properly, for “the new generation of drivers we so badly need.”

Will it make trucking cool again? Maybe not, but it could make it safer and more accessible to a younger population, and that’s a start.


  1. MrBigR504

    A simulator? Please unplug that damn thing and come getchu some seat time with an at least 10yr veteran so you can learn not to kill yourself and other innocent folks!

  2. Steve

    If have a time clock pay off the time clock at twice minimum wage once a truck driver has 5000 hours experience and let the truck driver stretch his day to 17 hours when needed anything over 12 hours at 4 times the minimum wage. The shortage of truck drivers would be gone in 20 weeks . Make all receivers provide overnight parking or $50.00 U S to the driver when they detained the truck driver more than 2 hours.

  3. CM Evans

    Additionally regarding the shortage I follow Foodservice Distribution having past experience in that sector and their number one challenge in the polls on the IFDA newsletter is finding qualified drivers. The pay is above average due to the physical requirements and most of the routes are home daily driving intrastate.
    I wouldn’t equate that at all to the OTR sector, the challenge there is to many drivers w/a low barrier to entry and outdated training methods/standards. Higher standards for themselves would mean holding others to higher standards.
    I don’t believe it’s fair to say that 18 yos cant operate the equipment, they’re already doing it daily and you just don’t realize it. The challenge for younger drivers is the time away from home and interaction w/management through technology vs face to face w/their managers on a daily basis.

  4. CM Evans

    I recently read an article that the state of Florida and Texas have a driver training program for inmates in the prison system. Obviously the individuals in the program are low risk and in my opinion deserve the opportunity to get into a steady career. If we are going to add any new drivers to the industry let’s review the hiring standards to allow others a second chance.

  5. Stacy Sprouse

    Get the government hands out of trucking .
    Throw the ELDs in the trash . Get rid of the cameras facing the driver .make the trucks run the damm speed limits . And make trucking trucking again . And real drivers will want and teach there kids and kin foke to drive like it used to be .
    I dont drive no more because of the ELD if I’m going to have to punch a time clock im going to punch it at a place wete im going home at night . If I got to drive a damm truck that cant run the speed limit I ain’t driving it . And if I wanted to be watched all day . I would walk around wal mart . Trucking is not the trucking I grew up to .
    And it’s no wonder no one wants to do the shit no more . I hope like hell it only gets worse. So the dumb asses . People can see how stupid they are that’s coming up with all this shot and all those thst think it’s so cool to have bunch of idiots

    1. Noble1 suggests SMART truck drivers should UNITE & collectively cut out the middlemen from picking truck driver pockets ! UNITE , CONQUER , & PROSPER ! IMHO

      Look at the bigger picture . There’s a reason why this is occurring . There’s an agenda to replace drivers with autonomous cargo vehicles !

      Times are changing . They want you out . Until then they will increase control and use you for as little as they can get away with until they can replace you . It’s nothing personal , it’s business ! They’ve used men in their countries . Then they went to get them through immigration programs . Then they catered to women . Now it’s our youths !

      That’s what capitalism is all about ! Diminishing costs & increasing profits .NOT CARING ABOUT PEOPLE’S WELFARE ! Labourers are a burden weighing on the bottom line when viewed upon from their perspective !

      If you’re not happy , then rather than running away when situations get tough and unfair , UNITE and create a change in your favor COLLECTIVELY ! That’s what labour unions have been doing since the 1800’s ! FIGHTING FOR LABORER JUSTICE, FAIR TREATMENT, & FAIR WAGES BASED ON THE COST OF LIVING !

      You decided to throw in the towel and give up . You’re not an example to follow ! Some of us aren’t willing to bow out as easily as you have and give in . Some of us are willing to UNITE and take a stand and show these capitalists that we can outsmart them at their own game ! As long as they need labourers WE have the upper hand if WE UNITE and not give up !

      We don’t have to act like the primitive organized labour unions do .BUT LEARN FROM THEM ! We can also innovate and improve . However, we need to be extremely wise and use our brains rather than our fists !

      Giving up is what losers do !

      IMHO …………

  6. rodney jones

    😳 18-20 year olds behind the wheel of a semi truck will be a serious safety issue on our highways and interstates this shouldn’t even be a discussion right now.

  7. Chris

    Been at this for 23 years, maybe I’m jaded, but I’ve never been able to accept the driver shortage argument. Better pay, better working conditions, better flexibility in scheduling your home time etc. It’s never been a shortage of drivers, just a lack of the mega carriers to treat drivers with the decency and respect they deserve. Smaller carriers 100 trucks or less seem to have no problems with retention I wonder why. I’m an O/O with a few trucks, and when I have hired drivers in the past, my job description asks for a minimum of 5 years, double edged sword at times, because most guys with 5 years plus with industry knowledge will go out on their own, the other percentage with that experience level tends to think they know it all, yes usually they’re good drivers, but not knowledgeable enough of the business and quality of life balance. In my humble opinion there has never been a driver shortage, just a lack of understanding that drivers should be afforded the same quality of life balance that the office staff at most of these mega carriers enjoy…

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