Is Trump’s apprenticeship idea the answer to the driver shortage?

Currently 18-21 year olds are prohibited from driving interstate commerce. But President Trump's push to create more apprenticeship programs may be a possible solution, and could open the door to attracting younger people into the profession.

Currently 18-21 year olds are prohibited from driving interstate commerce. But President Trump's push to create more apprenticeship programs may be a possible solution, and could open the door to attracting younger people into the profession.

With some government help, an opportunity presents itself to attract younger drivers

Commentary:

President Donald Trump is trying to avoid all the controversies surrounding his administration by focusing each week on a policy agenda item. Last week it was “infrastructure week.” This week is “workforce development week.”

One of the main focuses is on apprenticeships. What would you expect from a president who once hosted a show called The Apprentice?

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank, says Trump’s budget proposal sets aside $90 million for grants for apprenticeships, although it cuts job training program funding by $1.1 billion. Ironically, the $90 million is the same as Obama’s budget called for in 2016. With an estimated 6.8 million unemployed Americans, there would seem to be plenty of potential applicants for apprenticeship programs. Unfortunately, according to CNN Money, there were only 450,000 apprentices last year in any field.

Not nearly enough if Trump hopes to use apprenticeships as a gateway to meaningful employment.

“You have to create a lot of programs, double or quadruple, before apprenticeships become a lever that's really scalable in helping us to close the skills gap,” David Blake, CEO of education technology firm Degreed told CNN.

With the nation’s unemployment rate at 4.3% in May, there are fewer people unemployed. That is good for the economy, but it may not be so good for trucking. As Trump attempts to craft a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that would boost construction, trucking stands to lose further as current and potential over-the-road truckers seek employment in construction trades.


It could help trucking by opening the door to 18- to 21-year-old drivers. It’s an approach that many in the industry have pushed for a number of years, feeling that the industry is losing potential drivers to other careers when teens graduate from high school and need jobs, unable to consider truck driving.

For an industry already facing a driver shortage that the American Trucking Associations says could reach 175,000 by 2024, any further shrinking of the labor pool could be crippling.

On Monday, FMCSA proposed two rules that it said would help fleets find and train drivers. The first would extend up to 1 year a commercial learner’s permit and the second would streamline the process for active duty and veteran military members to obtain a CDL.

“Taken together, these two proposals will help ease the entry for thousands of qualified individuals into career opportunities as professional truck and bus drivers – a critical occupation facing an acute labor shortage in our country,” said FMCSA Deputy Administrator Daphne Jefferson.  “We could eliminate unnecessary burdens to both the applicants and to the states, save time, reduce costs and, most importantly, ensure that states only issue commercial driver’s licenses to well-trained, highly qualified individuals.”

Trump’s apprenticeship program may provide a more immediate answer, and to make it work, it requires a little give on the government’s part. Trump’s official plan, expected to be released later this week, will rely on businesses and colleges to fund expanded apprenticeships.

Certainly, anyone could work an apprenticeship in trucking, but it could specifically help trucking by opening the door to 18- to 21-year-old drivers. It’s an approach that many in the industry have pushed for a number of years, feeling that the industry is losing potential drivers to other careers when teens graduate from high school and need jobs, unable to consider truck driving. And when they are able to, at age 21, they are already 3 years into another occupation and less likely to switch to a career that will take them away from home on a regular basis.

At the 2015 FTR Transportation Conference, Derek Leathers addressed this issue.

“The reality is we’ve got a smaller workforce overall and we’re losing kids out of high school aged 18 to 21 to other careers – it’s simply harder to then attract them away from jobs they already have,” the president & COO of Werner Enterprises said.



The reality is that drivers in that age group can already pilot a Class 8 truck – just not across state lines. Under current federal law, those under 21 can obtain a CDL and drive intrastate commerce everyday legally, but they can’t cross a state line. And this is not a new issue. The Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) first suggested a pilot program to allow teens to drive across state lines as far back as 2000.

To illustrate that more clearly, David Heller, TCA’s vice president of government affairs, explained the situation this way in a Fleet Owner column from 2015.

“As TCA’s director of safety & policy, I can stand on the roof of our office building and see Washington, D.C., and its monuments, and then turn 90 deg. to the right and see straight into Maryland,” he wrote. “Neither Maryland nor D.C. are more than five miles from TCA offices (in Alexandria, VA), however, as a 19- or 20-year-old commercial driver, I would be unable to drive that distance with a fully loaded trailer. The hypocrisy lies in the fact that I can turn around and travel for five hours to the southwest corner of Virginia and back to Alexandria in another five hours under the guise of intrastate commerce.”

If Trump is serious about businesses taking the lead on his apprenticeship initiative, trucking represents an opportunity. Certainly smart minds can craft an effective program using some sort of graduated licensing system. For instance, maybe there is a maximum number of miles a driver under 21 can cover in a day, or maybe they need to operate only in team situations, or maybe it’s an extended period with a driver trainer.

Perhaps the starting pay is lower – reflecting their age and inexperience - but to incentivize their attention to safe driving and following proper procedures, maybe there are larger safety bonuses attached to the base pay, significantly upping the earning potential.

The answers are there if we just decide to ask the questions.

The mechanics of it could be worked out, if the government sees fit to let it happen. For trucking, though, it could be a boon to the driver ranks - getting younger drivers into the fold, and at a lower initial cost structure.

This is not a new suggestion, but maybe it’s one that needs to be revisited, and one that Trump can help make happen. He keeps saying that we need to remove regulatory barriers to job growth. This would seem to qualify.

And it’s all possible with just a little cooperation between industry and government.