Industry stakeholders work to attract new truck drivers before they enter the workforce

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Updated Jun 7, 2022

The following is the first of a multi-part series that addresses the issues surrounding attracting younger drivers. Other parts in the series will include input from experts on how the insurance industry is approaching coverage of interstate drivers under age 21 and how trucking companies can use technology to attract younger generations to a career in trucking.

High schools across the U.S. have over 1,200 career technical programs for woodworking, over 1,400 for automotive and over 3,000 for construction, but there are only around 180 diesel technology programs and just nine with CDL programs, said Lindsey Trent, president and co-founder of the Next Generation in Trucking Association (NGTA), a crowd- and member-funded nonprofit trade association that focuses on creating career paths into the trucking industry for high school students.

“We're way behind as an industry,” Trent said.

That’s not good when the trucking industry is already short 80,000 drivers and expects to see that number surpass 160,000 by 2030 according to the  American Trucking Association.

Trent said what’s holding the industry back is the federally legal age for driving interstate. That age is 21, but 37% of students decide their career choice by the time they're juniors in high school and 43% decide by the time they’re seniors with most of those students ranging between 16 and 18 years old.

Bryan J. Nelson, a partner at Taylor Johnson PL, said during a breakout session at TCA Truckload in Las Vegas that young people are three years into their careers already by the time they’re old enough to cross state lines with a CDL.

“Nowadays, if you don't know what you're doing in high school or middle school, you're already behind because you didn't take that class,” Nelson said. “They need to know this career exists … There's just a general lack of education within our schooling system (about) what those opportunities are for young people.”

Nelson, who works in transportation law, said his firm is working to get more truck driving and other industry related curriculums into more schools. Trent’s organization is doing the same to prepare students to enter the field in some capacity immediately upon graduating high school in anticipation that the federal government will change the legal age for interstate driving to 18, which it is working on with its Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot.

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“We know young people are making decisions while they're in high school. We also know that Gen Z – born between 1997 and 2012 – is really starting to be that first generation that's questioning whether or not they want to go to college and get that student loan debt,” Trent said. “So this is really the right time for us as an industry to partner and go into our local schools and talk to them about the trucking industry.”

NGTA is currently working with Paradigm Digital Group to prepare a presentation on careers in trucking for middle schools and high schools to use during their career exploration classes. Trent said the organization wants to give the presentation to anybody and everybody in the industry so people like CEOs of trucking companies can go into their local schools and share it with potential future drivers.

NGTA is also partnering with schools with existing diesel tech programs as well as working with schools to launch supply chain and CDL programs.

Dave Dein, vice president and co-founder of NGTA, launched a CDL training program at Patterson High School in California in which juniors and seniors participate in a one-year, in-depth curriculum that includes classroom instruction, driver simulators and even a golf cart with a utility trailer so they can practice backing.

Trent said the NGTA is working to replicate Dein’s curriculum in high schools across the U.S. and has already met with over 55 schools in the last year. The ultimate goal, she said, is to create a two-year truck driving career pathway so when students graduate from high school they can enroll at a local driving school to complete their behind-the-wheel training and enter the workforce.

“The hard thing is a young person starts looking for a job and says, ‘I would maybe want to be a truck driver,’ but when they start looking at jobs, every job says you have to be 21 or you have to have a year experience. That just turns them off, and they go to something different,” Trent said. “As an industry, we need to try to figure out ways where we can create career paths for them to get into our industry. If we can't hire them today as a truck driver, what can we do to get them in our industry? Is it a dockworker? Is it a forklift driver? Warehouse? How can we get them in our industry and get them trained so that they can become our next workforce?”

Nelson said the industry needs to start even earlier than high school to attract drivers. He wants to see children responding to the age-old question of what do you want to be when you grow up with “I want to be a truck driver” just as one might want to be a firefighter.

“I think we need to do a better job of making this industry look better to begin with. I know a lot of industries have influencers and other things. Where are those people that are saying how great transportation is?” he said. “Where are those kinds of conversations happening to the point where, by the time they're 18, they're already aware of what we do; they’re already aware of the things that are going on? I think that starts even before 18 so by the time they're 18, hopefully they already have an interest in it; they're excited about it.”

Angel Coker Jones is a senior editor of Commercial Carrier Journal, covering the technology, safety and business segments. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and kayaking, horseback riding, foraging for medicinal plants and napping. She also enjoys traveling to new places to try local food, beer and wine. Reach her at [email protected].