Top job of last resort?

Last month, Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher announced a plan to train truck drivers using funding set aside for building employment in high-growth industries. The goal is to offer economic opportunity and prosperity to individuals and communities in the greater Louisville area, particularly those in a designated empowerment zone.

Fletcher’s Entrepreneurial Trucking Initiative isn’t much different from other programs throughout the nation. For example, CCJ last year featured the efforts of several trucking companies to tap a similar program in Louisiana to fund a driver training simulator at a community college. But the Kentucky effort is notable not so much for its details as for how Fletcher and his staff characterized it.

It makes sense that the Entrepreneurial Trucking Initiative is aimed at the unemployed and underemployed, and most of what Fletcher said about the program is fine. “This initiative will provide real economic opportunity to individuals in our communities that truly deserve it,” he said. Who can argue with that?

Fletcher’s news release went on to note, however, that Louisville’s Empowerment Zone “has a high concentration of at-risk populations: ex-offenders, recovering addicts and disenfranchised youth.” It pointed out that about 27,500 state residents are on probation or parole, that a large number of them live in Louisville and that an unemployed ex-offender is three times more likely to return to prison. The release quotes Tierra Kavanaugh-Turner, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Minority Empowerment, as saying, “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

Sure, but does that second chance for an ex-offender or recovering addict have to involve driving an 80,000-pound machine down the interstate?

Just because the program is open to ex-offenders and recovering addicts doesn’t mean they will pursue the 40 slots available at Jefferson Community & Technical College. But the problem isn’t with individuals who might complete the eight-week program and get jobs as truck drivers. Assuming they have the skills and meet driver qualification standards, good for them and the carriers that hire them.

No, the real problem is the presumption that appears to underlie Fletcher’s plan: Driving a truck is a good job – if you have nowhere else to turn. The idea that driving is among the better jobs of last resort might help some people, but it certainly doesn’t do much for public image.

The trucking industry tends to focus on changing public perception of the big rig itself. Whenever movies or television show a large truck involved in a menacing situation, there’s an uproar. The industry counters by highlighting trucks’ importance. Hence the slogans: “Without Trucks America Stops” and the more recent “Good Stuff. Trucks Bring It.”

That’s a frustrating and largely fruitless battle. The most agitated critics of trucks are the motorists who share the road with them, and no amount of sloganeering will change their opinion. For them, what matters is that trucks travel too fast. Or they move too slowly. Or they just plain exist. The industry still must try to change minds, but until it learns how to change the immutable laws of physics and shrink trucks without reducing their payload, success will be limited.

Rather, the industry should focus squarely on driver image. Trucks must be big, but drivers don’t have to be bad. Here, the recent efforts of the American Trucking Associations and Truckload Carriers Association may present a win-win opportunity. For example, ATA soon will launch a major advertising campaign to promote careers in trucking. Done carefully – and without pandering to trucking’s 1970s outlaw image – a well-funded campaign to attract new blood into the industry might prove even more successful in changing public attitudes about truck drivers than in recruiting new drivers. If so, that’s money well spent.