Lobbying to let teens drive trucks on the highway divides industry


Legislation proposed to test allowing people as young as 18 to drive large interstate platforms reveals a divide in the trucking industry, where companies struggle to find workers for the grueling work of hauling goods over long distances.

A provision in the infrastructure bill that the Senate approved in August would set up a pilot program allowing young people between the ages of 18 and 20 to drive semi-trailers across state lines. Most states allow people under the age of 21 to obtain commercial driver’s licenses, but federal rules restrict these drivers to work within state borders.

Some in the industry say the measure could help expand the pool of available drivers. But others say it wouldn’t solve the fundamental problems that cause people to quit trucking for other manual jobs such as construction. These problems include demanding working conditions and wages too low to compensate for long hours behind the wheel and time spent away from home.

“If you have holes in the bucket, no matter how much water you put in the top of the bucket, if it drains as fast at the bottom as it does at the top, you haven’t really solved that problem. , ”Said Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents independent owners of single trucks and small fleets.

The association says there is no real shortage of drivers, as many trucking companies claim. In a recent letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, the group said that hundreds of thousands of people get commercial driver’s licenses every year and the problem is driver turnover, not supply, while new entrants try the business and leave for other work.

The American Trucking Associations, another trade body that represents trucking companies, hopes the pilot program will demonstrate that young people can safely drive interstate tractor-trailers, said Bill Sullivan, its executive vice president of advocacy. .

Supporters of lowering the federal age limit say many young people with commercial driver’s licenses already drive long distances in large states like Texas and California and the proposed apprenticeship program requires 400 hours of training would add another layer of security beyond what is necessary. to obtain a commercial license.

Truck drivers say the issue isn’t just the pay, but the tough life on the road.


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Road safety advocates warn that oversight on long journeys is lax and putting young drivers in large platforms will make the roads more dangerous. They cite an analysis from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showing that teenagers are much more likely to be in an accident than older drivers.

“They call it a pilot program, but it’s basically a foot in the door to change the rules of their imaginary driver shortage,” said Russ Swift, board member of the Truck Safety Advocacy Group. whose son died in 1993 in an accident when a truck driven by an 18-year-old got stuck on a road after an attempted U-turn.

Employment in trucking fell sharply at the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year and was still below pre-pandemic levels this summer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some industries have pointed to the shortage of truck drivers as a drag on their ability to restock and recover from the pandemic downturn, and many transport operators say the interrupted rebound in trucking jobs highlights long-standing problems that ‘they had to recruit and retain drivers.


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Finding people to drive trucks has been complicated by issues such as the deployment last year of a federal database that tracks drug or alcohol use violations by commercial driver’s license holders, as well as the relatively rapid recovery of blue-collar industries such as construction, said Avery Vise, vice president of transportation research firm FTR.

“We would still have several hundred job openings at the best of times,” said Derek Leathers, Managing Director of Werner Enterprises. Inc.,

a large full load transporter based in Omaha, Neb. But now the company has more than 500 vacancies, he said, and the hardest to fill are long-haul drivers. Like many businesses, Werner is trying to attract more drivers by offering higher pay, but making sure they return home regularly is also a big incentive, he said.

The Infrastructure Bill’s pilot program would allow up to 3,000 drivers at a time to participate in the test, in a heavy and semi-trailer trucking industry that altogether employs about 1.8 million people, according to the BLS. The House is due to consider the bill this month.

The Senate Democrats’ $ 3.5 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan is a sprawling bill. Gerald F. Seib of the WSJ provides an overview of the handful of provisions that appear to be the most popular and those considered to be the most controversial. Photographic illustration: Todd Johnson

The ATA wants the Department of Transportation to eventually lift its ban on interstate truck drivers under the age of 21. The American Transportation Research Institute, a group affiliated with the ATA, predicts that by 2023, the industry will be short of 100,000 people from the drivers needed to replace retirees. workers and handle the new freight demand. This is in part because almost a third of the drivers currently on the road are over the age of 55.

ATA’s Sullivan said the rigors of work are best suited to young people with more energy and without families. “I think what I wanted to do and what I would put up with when I was 18 is very different from today,” he said.

But expanding the pool of potential drivers could cause the industry to simply move more workers around, according to those who have studied the industry’s workforce, as truck carriers seek to compete by cutting costs and increasing keeping drivers on the road for long periods of time.

“You can run your trucks more efficiently, in which case, especially since they are driving longer distances, the drivers are treated like pinball machines and they don’t come home very often; they work long hours, ”said Stephen Burks, a professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris specializing in transportation and economics.

Truck drivers often move on to other blue collar jobs such as construction and off-truck transportation, moves motivated by differences in earnings and hours, while high turnover in long-haul trucking can create the appearance of a shortage, Mr Burks and BLS Associate Commissioner Kristen. Monaco wrote in a paper 2019.

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The average annual salary for heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers in May 2020, the latest month for which data is available, was $ 48,710, up from $ 40,360 in 2012, according to the BLS. In comparison, drivers of light trucks or vans had an average annual salary of $ 41,050 in May 2020, according to BLS data.

The problem is not just the pay, say the drivers, but the difficult life on the road.

Michelle Kitchin, who drives for Van Eerden Trucking Co. truck transporter Byron Center, Mich. And has been behind the wheel for more than three decades, doubts hiring young hires could plug the leaks in the workforce. trucking. Truckers face a “retention problem,” she said, due to long hours, time spent waiting for cargo to be handled at truck docks and extended periods away from home.

“What 17 year old is going to look at the trucking industry and say, ‘I want to do this when I’m 18? ”, Asked Ms. Kitchin.

Write to Lydia O’Neal at [email protected]

Corrections and amplifications
The Infrastructure Bill’s pilot program allowing young people between the ages of 18 and 20 to drive semi-trailers across state lines would allow up to 3,000 drivers at a time to participate in the test. An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that it allowed 3,000 participants in total. (Corrected September 10)

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