Across the trucking industry, the commercial driver shortage is often a topic of discussion. And while there are a large number of issues that need to be addressed, more often than not there are an equally large number of ideas for helping solve one of the industry’s biggest challenges. One of those is the long-standing topic of whether to license 18- to 20-year-old drivers to haul loads across state lines.
Proponents of that rule change often point out that drivers younger than 21 can obtain CDLs for intrastate hauls in every state except Hawaii, making the interstate prohibition unfair when even simple travel distances are considered. An example of that thinking is that while 18-year-olds can legally drive the nearly 750 miles across Texas from El Paso to Houston, a Virginia driver under 21 is not allowed to make a delivery a few miles away in neighboring Maryland.
In part, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) might just agree, at least to the extent that the agency is considering a rule change that would allow truck drivers between 18 and 20 years old to operate across state lines. In 2019, FMCSA began addressing the need for a pilot program, and this past fall it started asking for industry and public input about the idea.
During the FMCSA pilot, 18- to 20-year-old drivers with a CDL would be allowed to operate on interstate routes in standard configuration commercial vehicles, except those hauling hazardous materials or carrying passengers. The program would include a 120-hour probationary period followed by a 280-hour apprenticeship with an employer.
If 18- to 20-year-old drivers were to be approved for interstate commerce, how will fleets have to revisit onboarding and training?
“The biggest challenge with younger drivers is their lack of exposure and experience, but that isn’t insurmountable,” explained Nathan Stahlman, CEO of transportation industry training solutions provider Instructional Technologies, Inc. “Schools will need to provide training using additional technologies that appeal to younger drivers and take steps to help bring those trainees up to speed.
“Ideally, that training should help younger drivers get the kind of experience and exposure that a 21-year-old would have,” Stahlman added. “Simulation tools, for example, can be a great way to do that. Fleets should also prepare for longer onboarding and provide a graduated path for younger drivers. Smart fleets will see this as an opportunity to show drivers career opportunities by offering training and advancement.”
The trucking industry is also now preparing for the new ELDT (Entry Level Driver Training) mandate that takes effect in less than one year.
“The new mandate will likely extend how much time it takes to train a new driver,” Stahlman said. “That will be less of an issue for schools with longer, more comprehensive programs, but it also means some schools won’t be able to put drivers through a CDL training program as quickly as they do now. Still, the ELDT mandate will level the playing field for schools around the country because it codifies a formal set of requirements that everyone will have to follow.”
Another challenge, according to Stahlman, is that carriers may be expecting entry-level drivers to be at the level of an experienced driver. ELDT will help, he noted, but carriers need to realize that they won’t get a very experienced driver straight out of school. They’ll need to have a career plan for drivers that builds on the ELDT program.
“At the same time, with the ELDT we expect the competition for experienced drivers to decrease because you’ll have more fleets willing to hire better trained entry-level drivers,” Stahlman continued. “This may reduce competition and turnover among more experienced drivers because fleets will be more inclined to take a chance on a better-qualified entry-level driver.
“One of the biggest benefits of hiring 18-20-year-old drivers is that this is probably their first full-time job,” Stahlman added. “First job hires, when they’re successful, are extremely company loyal. That is why smart industry partners are trying to start high school programs. The idea is to catch candidates early.”
As an example, Stahlman points to the CDL driver program at Patterson High School in Patterson, Calif. The program, created in 2016 by teacher and former truck driver Dave Dein, was designed to meet the needs of the digital generation by incorporating interactive technology such as driving simulators and digital textbooks. ITI serves as the program’s transportation curriculum provider.
The prospect of licensing more younger drivers creates an interesting opportunity for the industry, Stahlman concluded.
“Teenagers are especially drawn to the idea of freedom and independence, which is at the very heart of trucking,” he said. “That promise for an 18-20-year-old can be incredibly appealing, and fleets should be supporting ways to tap into it.”