By a Biometrica staffer
The trucking industry is currently in the midst of a well-publicized driver shortage crisis, which has combined with other factors to exacerbate a supply chain crisis in the U.S. This has prompted some to advocate for a radical shift — allowing young adults between 18 and 21 to apply for commercial driver’s licenses and transport cargo all across the country. Current federal law says that anyone below the age of 21 cannot transport goods across state lines, even though 49 states and the District of Columbia issue commercial driver’s licenses to 18-year-olds (New York is the exception).
According to experts, the trucking industry is “80,000 drivers short of where it needs to be to meet demand projections.” The average age for truckers is around 46 years old, meaning that many are reaching the age of retirement. Unless the industry recruits young people and establishes a steady replacement rate, there is a chance the shortage could worsen, with trucking companies left to fill vacancies and hire over 1 million new drivers over the next ten years.
In line with this, U.S. Senators Todd Young (R–Ind.) and Jon Tester (D–Mont.) in March this year reintroduced the Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy Act (or the DRIVE Safe Act) into Congress. Under the bill, the Department of Transportation would be directed to create an “apprenticeship program” that would help bring more commercial motor vehicle drivers under the age of 21 into the labor market and would allow them to participate in interstate commerce.
The bill mandates that an apprentice complete two probationary periods that include a total of 400 hours on duty, 240 of which “must be driving time in a commercial motor vehicle.” During the period, the apprentice will have to have an experienced commercial vehicle driver in the cab with them. A similar program already exists for military truck drivers.
The biggest concern of opponents to such measures is that of road safety, as statistics have repeatedly shown that teenage drivers tend to be more reckless than adult drivers, and tend to get into more accidents.
The DRIVE Safe Act takes some steps to address this by requiring companies to install safety technology such as active braking collision mitigation systems, video event capturing systems, and a speed governor set at or below 65 miles per hour in the vehicles that will be used by apprentices in the program. Additionally, no one under 21 who is not a part of the program will be allowed to operate a commercial motor vehicle. These training provisions in fact “exceed those for over-21 drivers, potentially making these drivers better trained,” one source says.
For decades now, some in the industry have been saying that the inability to recruit out of high school means that the crucial trucking industry loses potential employees to other “blue-collar” industries like construction and manufacturing. Said American Trucking Associations (ATA) vice president Dave Osiecki in 2015: “We all know the 18- to 21-year-old period is a time where we lose kids coming out of high school that don’t go to college but go to trade schools and into construction and other competing industries.”
Advocates for the Act notched a major victory in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure deal, which was just signed into law a few weeks ago. The provision inside the infrastructure bill establishes the apprenticeship program that the DRIVE Safe Act calls for, requiring Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to set up the program by Jan. 14 of next year. The program is scheduled to last only until 2024, but in that period could certify as many as 25,000 young adults, allowing them to join the trucking workforce much earlier than they otherwise would have been able to.
There are other contentious measures being debated when it comes to easing the trucker shortage. At the heart of most of these issues, too, is the matter of road safety. One timely discussion ongoing is to do with the federal government’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate for any business that has more than 100 employees.
Separately, some companies have been lobbying since the Obama administration for relaxed driver rest requirements, especially in times of emergency. Currently, the Department of Transportation says that truckers can work only 11 hours in a day and 70 hours a week, with at least one 30-minute break in the first eight hours of their shift.
Trucking remains one of the industries most pivotal in the U.S. economy, with the industry’s responsibility only having grown since the advent of Covid-19 and shifting consumption patterns that are seeing more people shopping online than ever before. In 2020, it was estimated the industry had 3.36 million employees, 6.8% lower than the 3.5 million noted in 2019. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the median pay in 2020 was $47,130 per year. It is estimated that long-distance truckers drive around 125,000 miles per year and spend an average of 300 days a year on the road.