Bill urges DOT to improve lackluster driver apprenticeship program

Bi-partisan legislation introduced into the House Wednesday seeks to spur participation in the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program, a truck driver recruiting initiative that to date could at best be categorized as lackluster or, at worst, a flop.

The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot (SDAP) program allows drivers under the age of 21 to drive interstate under certain conditions. Launched in 2022, the program was capped at 3,000 participating drivers at any one time, but fewer than a dozen driver participants have enrolled. Currently, 16 fleets have been approved to hire drivers for the SDAP program. 

American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear said the program's failure is partly due to extraneous Department of Transportation requirements for program participation – like requiring driver-facing cameras and that participating motor carriers be part of a Department of Labor-approved Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP) – that were not included in the bipartisan infrastructure law.

"Some entities that are not in USDOL-approved RAPs, which were not required by Congress, have had their applications denied by USDOT, and others have simply declined to apply," Spear said in a March testimony before the House Committee on Education and Workforce. "It is worth noting the additional technology requirement regulators have unilaterally imposed on the SDAP not only goes beyond what Congress negotiated, but was imposed almost eight months after the enactment of the IIJA and only 14 days before the application process began. This costly, unexpected, last-minute equipment mandate prompted several motor carriers to decline participation in the program altogether."

Spear said the DRIVE Safe Integrity Act – introduced by Representatives Rick Crawford (R-Arkansas) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) – helps get the pilot program back on track by urging DOT to take corrective actions to improve participation in the SDAP and requiring DOT to provide Congress detailed reports on SDAP’s status and corrective actions taken to improve participation. 

“By directing DOT to steer the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program back to the course Congress originally intended and providing a path forward for participants to safely enter the workforce, this bill will ensure our industry has the talent it needs to meet the economy’s freight demands in the years to come,” Spear said. 

ATA contends that trucking currently faces a shortage of more than 78,000 truck drivers and needs to hire 1.2 million new drivers over the next decade to meet increasing freight demands. 

International Foodservice Distributors Association President and CEO Mark Allen, whose organization alongside ATA supports the new bill, said the last three years have proven how important truck drivers are to the economy "and how urgently we need to develop a pipeline of qualified, well-trained professional drivers to meet our nation’s growing freight needs."

Upon the sunset of the pilot, the bill calls for USDOT to review the safety data and issue regulations for a permanent apprenticeship program for commercial drivers between the ages of 18 and 20.