Your scribe, Jim Park, at about 5 years into a 20-year driving career -- circa 1983-ish.
I never took a lesson in my life, yet I managed to stay mostly out of harm's way for 20 years and 2 million miles. I don't consider myself God's gift to a 13-speed, but the record would show that I did well in my driving career. Would three months of entry-level training have made me a better driver?
I doubt it.
The issue of entry-level driver training is back on the radar screen. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has to post a final rule on the matter by October, so we can presume that something is going to change.
FMCSA held a listening session at the Mid-America Trucking Show, to gauge truckers' and others' feelings on the matter, and opinions ran the gamut. It's important to note that much of what was said during the four-hour session was just that: opinion. There hasn't apparently been a lot of study done on the matter.
Among the agency's options is establishing an accreditation program for trucking schools that would require yet-to-be-determined quantities of classroom and on-road training. Another is some sort of performance-based standard for entry-level drivers. Each has its pros and cons, but the question FMCSA needs to address is, how much safer would any of these approaches make an entry-level driver?
I would argue that it's not necessarily a certain skill set that makes a driver safer, but better judgment. You can't teach judgment in three weeks or six or even 12. Good judgment comes with years of experience -- and that's the only way to get it.
The problem with mandating training requirements is whence the request comes. Carriers want "qualified" drivers. Safety advocates want "safer" drivers. Potential driving candidates want "affordable" training that leads to employability. Driving schools need throughput to remain viable and they want to teach a cost-effective but adequate curriculum.
You can't achieve all those objectives with a single stroke of just one brush.
Save for a rarified bunch of carriers that have invested in their own driver development programs, few carriers have demonstrated a willingness to invest in driver development -- I call it development rather than training, because the process of learning should continue long after the basic skill requirements have been met. I would argue that passing the state CDL test (let's ignore, just for the moment, the chicanery that goes on there sometimes) is just the first step in a career-long learning process. Too often though, the learning stops with the passing of the test.
Since we already have the CDL test (I wouldn't argue with strengthening those requirements a little), we have a benchmark the schools need to meet. And yes, that would mean teaching drivers just to pass the CDL test.
Requiring more of the schools increases cost and reduces throughput in their programs. They face many of the same costs that carriers do, and they can ill afford to log thousands of miles per student just to meet some arbitrary training requirement.
Requiring a certain number of classroom and in-cab hours drives up the cost of the programs and reduces the number of students the schools might recruit. We have to consider the cost of such a program to the student, both in terms of finances and time. How many under-employed individuals can afford a couple of months with no income after spending thousands of dollars on a driver training program? Even if they can swing the financing, what assurance do they have that a carrier will hire them without experience?
I think it's entirely possible to teach most people how to competently steer and gear a truck in a few weeks. After that, I think it's up to the carriers – the ultimate customer of the driving schools – to pick up the ball and invest in developing that entry-level CDL graduate into a safe and responsible professional.
I can think of few other industries that expect entry-level personnel to be fully qualified from day one of their careers. From software development, motion picture production and journalism up to the legal profession and especially aviation, there's a career advancement path where the new hires learn the ropes as their careers progress. Each walks through the door with the basic skills, and their employers foot the bill in one way or another for further career development.
The best example is aviation. If the airlines insisted on hiring only qualified pilots, we'd have horrendously long waits for a trans-Atlantic flight. Where do you suppose a wannabe Boeing 777 pilot would find a suitable aircraft to practice on?
In that world, the private pilot certificate is considered a license to learn. There a multitude of ratings and certifications to earn before learning to fly the big jets. By the time a candidate gets an airline job, he or she must have at least 500 hours (FAA wants to change that to 2,500 hours) before the real training starts.
To get "qualified" pilots, the airlines have to train the candidates – at their expense.
The cost of training a truck driver pales compared to the cost of training a 777 pilot, but the airlines get something for their investment that motor carriers don't: the benefit of consistency. Airline X's pilots are trained the way Airline X wants them. Trucking has to settle for what it can get.
Let's face it, practically every industry employing skilled workers faces some training cost. That trucking believes it can download those costs to prospective driving candidates goes a long way to explaining why we're facing a potentially catastrophic shortage of skilled help.
Fostering Up-and-Coming Talent
If I was designing a career development program for tractor-trailer drivers, it would look something like this:
Basic Training: Truck driving schools would teach the basics of vehicle handling, such as steering, gearing, turning, backing, etc. At the same time, candidates would learn principles of safe and defensive driving as well as some of the basic regulatory tenets, including hours of service, vehicle inspection, etc. In other words, the student would need to learn enough to pass the CDL test.
Entry Level training: Carriers would take the CDL driver and run them on revenue loads with a trainer for a couple of months (on the understanding that they can be washed out at anytime) in a daycab tractor. You don't learn much while your trainer is asleep in the bunk. The trainee would get the benefit of the trainer's experience and good judgment. I'd require a minimum of five years experience and familiarity with adult learning principles for the trainer's qualifications. And I'd insist that the trainers earned a wage at least equal to what they earned as line drivers with a modest premium for the experience they are passing on.
At that point, I'd deem the driver sufficiently trained to handle a local or regional truck solo or in a team situation with a another similarly experienced new driver. After a year or so, providing everything worked out, I'd be prepared to turn the driver loose over the road.
As far as training wages go, they'd need to be sufficient to sustain the worker and a family while they are learning. Teaching someone a new skill shouldn't be a license to rob them blind at the same time. These people are the future of our industry. How can we expect to grow and prosper if we continue eating our young?
As for my career development, I skipped driving school and learned to driver tractor-trailers over a series of about 10 Fridays -- after accumulating my 40 hours by Thursday on a straight truck delivering groceries. I had a decent understanding of large vehicle dynamics by that time. At the hands of a few experienced drivers, I learned the basic skills of driving tractor-trailers. I spent several hours a week learning how to shunt trailers into our loading docks where I couldn't do much more damage than knocking over a fence post.
I never had a chargeable accident, never had an at-fault collision, and I accumulated only about a half-dozen of violations over 20 years. Not bad for a guy who never took a lesson in his life.