The Case for the 19 Year-Old Truck Driver

If we implemented stringent qualification and training criteria, to include an apprenticeship requiring months of ride-along practice parameters with experienced drivers, much of this risk can be minimized.

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Our Trucking Industry has been concerned about our growing CDL driver shortage for several years, but we’ve done very little, as a group, to overcome these driver demographic headwinds.  Sure, we’ve nibbled around the edges with efforts to recruit former soldiers, women and immigrants into driving careers – but none of these worthy endeavors has been too impactful on our shortage of qualified drivers.  However, new legislation winding through Congress (the DRIVE-Safe Act, with a chance of being enacted if included in a highway reauthorization bill that is passed these next couple of years) would reduce the legal interstate truck driving age from 21 to 18 and help us overcome our impending wave of retiring drivers.

I understand that putting 18-20 year-olds behind the wheel of semi’s is a very scary proposition.  I’m married with five kids, so I truly appreciate the safety concerns associated with young drivers.  However, if we implemented stringent qualification and training criteria, to include an apprenticeship requiring months of ride-along practice parameters with experienced drivers, much of this risk can be minimized.  18-20 year-olds are already able to drive trucks commercially intra-state, so many would already have valuable experience operating these trucks.  It’s also worth noting that automobiles cause a much higher percentage of accidents than semi’s, and I’m much more concerned about the impact drug legalization and the prevalence of distraction and texting while driving has on safety than responsible and trained 19-20 year-old truck drivers.

Our experienced CDL truck drivers will be retiring at record rates and we have very few new, young drivers coming in behind them.   The average age of our company’s thousands of drivers sourced to our private fleet clients across North America is over 50, and our driver population is younger than many because a high proportion of our driver jobs require loading/unloading by our drivers.  Over-the-road fleets are seeing even higher average ages, with many approaching an average age of 60 years old.

So what are the consequences if we’re unable to sufficiently replace these retiring drivers?  Virtually everything you touch during the day was transported on a truck at one time or another, so prices for your daily food and retail goods will go up.  Trucking companies will go out of business at higher rates because they won’t be able to afford the much higher wages needed to recruit and retain drivers, leaving less competition for the bigger carriers. Freight may take longer to be delivered due to lack of drivers, countering rising consumer demand for next-day or near-term deliveries.  Manufacturing cost will rise due to higher transportation costs, impacting corporate profitability.

The American Trucking Association projects a shortfall of over 100,000 drivers in America by 2022.  We’re currently short 50,000 drivers, so one can readily see how fast this driver shortage will grow.  Successfully recruiting individuals right out of high school would go a long way to alleviating this dearth of drivers, and positions offering starting wages in the $40,000 – $50,000/year range with a 401k, health insurance and other vacation/holiday benefits should be appealing.  Wages could quickly balloon to $75,000 within a few years, when other kids their age would be retiring from college with significant debt.  Safe and dependable young drivers would have virtually unlimited job security, can live where they’d like to live and be able to work with companies in or serving a variety of industries.

Autonomous trucks would also have a positive impact on our driver shortage, freeing-up available drivers to do city and shorter-haul driving (often requiring loading/unloading) that would not be suitable for these self-driving trucks.  While manufacturers already have this technology, I think it will be quite a while before it’s implemented on our roads and highways due to a number of hurdles (e.g. infrastructure requirements, legislative process, pro-labor resistance, etc.).  I believe the impending job losses created by automation and advanced robotics technology in our factories, plants and warehouses will be far more significant and sooner than automated trucking, and this reality serves as another reason why we should open these 18-20 year-olds to trucking careers – so they have good jobs and a very honorable profession!

Retired Army General Colin Powell once stated that “There are no secrets to success – don’t waste time looking for them.  Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty to those for whom you work, and persistence.”   I agree with General Powell, and believe that there are no secrets to significantly impacting our commercial driver shortage in the U.S.  We must significantly expand our driver candidate pool by passing legislation that will allow qualified 18-20 year-olds to work as interstate commercial truck drivers.  Securing drivers at this younger age will enable our trucking industry to embrace these individuals before they choose careers in other less lucrative fields that may not be a better fit.