There are a zillion reasons to improve trucking’s driver-training system (if it can actually be called a “system” at all). One of those reasons may not be obvious, but I’m convinced it’s real. That’s driver retention, and I think proper training is an almost sure-fire way to keep people at the wheel.
Make drivers comfortable with what they’re doing, on the road and off, by ensuring that they feel confident in traffic and weather, and above all that they understand the truck and its various mechanical and electronic components. There’s more to a driver’s role, of course, but if he or she is unsure about those basics, nerves and stress and poor performance will follow. And that’s not conducive to job satisfaction.
If we don’t prepare truck drivers well, for what is not an easy job, we just set them up to fail — or at the very least become unsure of themselves and then disgruntled. Not the way to start any career.
How many truck-driving schools teach newbies the practical meaning of center of gravity, for instance? I’ll bet it’s a tiny minority. You sure as hell won’t see that in the cheapo schools that flourish because all they do is prepare people for a road test. But send a rookie with such minimal training on his first trip from the flatlands to driving in the mountains and the result could well be catastrophe (or at the very least soiled jeans). Just ask any mountain-area highway cop about that scenario and you’ll get an earful.
On a much simpler level, the veterans amongst you will remember people complaining years ago about suddenly being given a truck with a Fuller 13-speed to drive when they’d been accustomed to a 10-speed or some other simpler gearbox. No instruction, no access to a manual (and probably no time to read it anyway). Missed shifts and attention gaps surely followed. And the complainers weren’t always new drivers.
The same holds true for the abundance of technologies that must be learned today. Training on that front, from what I hear, is scanty.
Throwing New Truck Drivers in the Deep End Before They’re Ready
Pardon me if I’ve told this tale before, but my own nephew was a victim of lousy preparation, and it helped to cut his driving career short. He was a natural for the job, a skilled driver with good mechanical senses, and he paid serious money for training at a good school where he excelled. I immediately got him an interview with what I thought was a top-notch fleet and he signed on.
But two weeks later — a raw rookie — he was dispatched to pull 140,000-lb B-train flatbeds into seriously hilly territory. He was thrown into the deep end with nowhere near enough experience or training to handle it. Some may say that’s the best way to learn. Once upon a time when the roads were much emptier, that notion might have had at least a little merit. Not today.
To his credit, while admitting that he was scared sh**less more than once, he hit nothing, killed nobody, and ran that route nervously but successfully for another couple of months. Still, he launched his career on a very sour note and quit trucking not long afterward. Our industry lost a good one.
So much for a top-notch fleet.
Proper Training = Driver Retention
No matter what you say, there is a shortage of truck drivers, especially long-haulers. You can re-state that fact as a shortage of people willing to do the job, for all manner of well-understood reasons, but the end result is the same: not enough folks to put behind the wheel. A recruitment problem that seems to defy solution.
These scenarios also affect the job satisfaction and retention of more experienced drivers, who don’t want to share the road with poorly trained rookies. More and more often, for example, I hear and read veteran drivers say they’re frightened to drive certain roads in winter. Not that they can’t handle the conditions — rather that so many others can’t.
And there you have a double-edged retention issue. The new drivers aren’t trained to feel comfortable at the wheel, and the old ones are just plain scared.
We simply have to get serious about training.
The Biden administration recently announced that it’s following through on its Trucking Action Plan commitment by awarding more than $44 million in grants to enhance road safety and make the process to obtain a CDL more efficient. Great, but that’s not much money, and it misses the mark anyway. It’s just a tune-up when we should actually be launching an overhaul.
Sorry, Mr. President, we don’t need a more efficient process half as much as we need a very tough and comprehensively rigorous one.