Increased Post-COVID Demand Threatens to Make the Trucker Shortage Worse

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For years, there has been a national shortage of interstate long-haul truck drivers — and the COVID-19 crisis has only compounded the problem. As supply chains were interrupted by company closures in response to government directives, demand for truckers who could transfer and deliver business and consumer goods skyrocketed. At the same time, state driver’s license agencies shuttered, abruptly halting the process of getting new truck drivers trained, licensed, and on the road.

Many are concerned that, as states begin to reopen businesses, the demand for deliveries will again increase, and the numbers of drivers will be insufficient to handle the volume. However, some industry groups, organizations, and government offices are taking steps to find solutions to the challenge.

Collaboration Is Key

In the early days of the pandemic, a coalition of commercial driver’s license (CDL) schools, trucking companies, shippers, and trade groups called for legislation giving the federal government authority to administer CDL testing. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration responded to the call, granting a waiver to allow third-party CDL test examiners to administer tests, thus overcoming one of the major obstacles posed by the COVID-19 closures.

This collaboration is noteworthy because the relationship between government regulators and operators in the trucking industry hasn’t always been a friendly one. However, the unprecedented closing of the entire country challenged leaders to work together for the sake of the economy and the future of the supply chain — and this collaboration may point toward further steps we can take to end the driver shortage.

Businesses and Educators Are Taking the Wheel

Trucking companies, CDL training schools, and educators have worked together to develop a number of strategies to close the national talent gap and increase the size of the next generation of truck operators.

The challenge to replace drivers who are retiring after years in the cab is a great one. One of the key steps involves changing the messaging that surrounds working as a long-haul commercial trucker: It’s not just a job, but a full and rewarding career. Furthermore, operating a truck can have a reputation as an outdated profession, but newer rigs come equipped with the kind of high tech that can get younger recruits excited about the job.

Over the last two years alone, I’ve personally witnessed businesses and educators working together to launch several impactful strategies to close the talent gap, including:

  1. High schools are starting to seed training classes in vocational programming, thereby exposing more students aged 16-18 to long-haul rig operation as a legitimate career path. California’s Patterson High School has instituted such a program, and it is being replicated in a number of states.
  2. The introduction of new high-tech training simulations has also allowed the trucking industry to tap talent pools that have been traditionally underrepresented. For example, many more women now have a chance to explore handling a long-haul rig virtually without the fear associated with safety concerns and scrutiny from a ride-along instructor in the early learning phase.
  3. In keeping with that trend, the industry is also exploring new sources of potential recruits and leaving no stone unturned. For example, military veterans who drove large rigs as part of their service can get credit for their behind-the-wheel experience,  thereby shortening the licensing process significantly. I’ve also seen organizations actively encourage formerly incarcerated people in search of a fresh start to consider trucking as a career.
  4. Many organizations are also enhancing their benefits packages to be competitive with other jobs both in the transportation industry and outside of it. A growing number of companies are offering highly desired benefits like tuition assistance and compensation enhancements.
  5. Distance learning is the new normal in the age of the coronavirus crisis and beyond, and truck-driver training programs are recognizing this. Many more programs are now utilizing virtual reality simulations, test-preparation mobile apps, and video training, in addition to traditional methods like on-the-road training and book learning. As in practically every area of digital technology today, rapid improvements are being made in driver-training simulators, with the latest simulations incorporating motion and haptic response for a more effective and efficient training process.

As the trucker shortage has hopefully shown us all by now, operating a long-haul rig is more than a job — it’s a profession. This profession, like any other, needs a steady supply of highly trained, highly qualified talent to keep it going. About 30 percent of high school graduates enter the workforce instead of going to college, and it’s incumbent upon the trucking industry to meet that opportunity and provide vocational education programs in high school and community colleges nationwide.

The initiatives that have been launched by educators and businesses in this unprecedented global environment have shown promise in attracting and preparing the next generation of truck drivers for their important role in the transportation and supply chain industries. If those initiatives continue, we could finally end the trucker shortage.

John Kearney is CEO of Advanced Training Systems.

By John Kearney