America is currently facing a severe shortage of truck drivers. The American Trucking Associations estimates that in 2021, the U.S. needed about 80,000 more truck drivers to meet demand, a record high. On the current trajectory, this number could more than double to over 160,000 by 2030. And because trucks move more than 72% of U.S. freight, the driver shortage also has ripple effects across the entire U.S. supply chain.
There is no quick fix to this problem. A variety of complex factors have contributed to the driver shortage, including an aging workforce, wage issues, and underrepresentation from women — not to mention the inherent challenges of the job itself.
Just as there is no single cause of this problem, there is no single solution. But a new federal program may help address one critical issue: recruiting and safely training 18- to 20-year-olds to become the next generation of interstate truck drivers before they seek employment in other industries.
Closing the Gap on a Key Talent Pool
In every U.S. state except Hawaii, individuals ages 18 or older are eligible to obtain an intrastate commercial driver’s license to operate trucks within state lines. But due to longstanding federal regulations (some aspects of which came before the creation of the interstate highway system) truck drivers under the age of 21 are banned from crossing state lines.
This federal restriction no longer makes sense in today’s world. In effect, it means young truck drivers are allowed to drive hundreds of miles within one state but are prevented from driving just a few miles across a state line or even touching interstate freight.
“As a result of this limitation, the highest-value jobs — and the more desirable equipment that comes with those jobs — are unavailable for 18- to 20-year-olds, who generally will then opt for another career path,” explains Nick Geale, VP of workforce policy at the ATA. By the time these individuals turn 21 and are eligible to obtain an interstate CDL, they have pursued careers in other industries.
Wisconsin-based freight carrier Kreilkamp Trucking has seen the effects of this labor gap firsthand.
“Every year, we lose a generation of young people to other career paths,” says Director of Enterprise Safety Brad Penneau. “From when an 18-year-old is eligible for a CDL to when they turn 21 and are eligible to drive interstate, they’ve had three years to explore different career paths.”
This helps to explain why in 2019 the average age of new truck drivers entering the industry was 35, and the average age of truck drivers in the U.S. was 46 — and those numbers have only gotten worse since then. The 21-year-old federal age requirement deters younger drivers from exploring careers in trucking and, in turn, presents a major driver recruitment challenge for interstate carriers. Given the average age of American truck drivers and the lack of a young driver pipeline, drivers age out of the profession faster than they are replaced by new talent, thereby exacerbating the shortage.
The bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill, signed into law in November, focused on this issue by mandating the creation of a federal pilot program to allow 18- to 20-year-olds to operate trucks on interstate routes. Earlier this year, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration officially announced the program. The three-year Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program will allow as many as 3,000 young truckers, with state-issued CDLs and clean records, to participate in 400 hours of training, operating trucks across state lines under the direct supervision of an experienced driver in the passenger seat.
Once an apprentice driver completes the 400 hours of training, they will be permitted to operate interstate by themselves, but they will still be considered part of the apprenticeship program until they turn 21. In effect, this means the carrier employing the apprentice driver will be required to comply with the program’s reporting requirements until the driver is 21 years old. This will help ensure carriers are properly incentivized to continue providing quality training to apprentice drivers after they successfully complete the 400-hour training requirement and provide more data to FMCSA on the safety of apprentices.
This new program is not a short-term fix, but rather a long-term investment. Overall, it’s about helping trucking companies bridge the gap to attract, recruit, and safely train the next generation of truck drivers at a critical age, before they pursue another career path.
“This program will enable us to start drawing from that young labor group and training and developing that talent — just like any other employer does,” says Penneau.
The Role of Technology in the Next Generation of Drivers
Critics of the apprenticeship program have raised concerns about safety, noting that it allows teenage drivers to get behind the wheel of some of the biggest vehicles on the road — big interstate semi-trucks. But this criticism seemingly ignores the fact that 18- to 20-year-olds are already allowed to drive these vehicles in 49 states and the District of Columbia, with less training required than what is laid out by this new program. Moreover, a newly licensed 21-year-old is allowed to drive such vehicles across state lines without any of the additional 400 hours of training or safety equipment required by the pilot program.
“We train young individuals of the same age to go to war. It's all about the training,” says Todd Boldin, director of safety and former driver at US Logistics Solutions, a Texas-based trucking company that plans to apply to the apprenticeship program. “The technology and training requirements outlined by this program are more than sufficient for us to be able to train these young drivers properly and weed out those individuals that shouldn't be behind the wheel of a truck.”
In addition to 400 hours of probationary training alongside an experienced driver, the apprenticeship program requires that all vehicles operated by apprentices have certain safety technologies, including automated manual transmissions, active braking collision mitigation systems, forward-facing and inward-facing cameras, and a governed speed of 65 mph.
According to Geale, “With the technology and training requirements, this program should produce the safest cohort of young drivers ever deployed in the trucking industry.”
Indeed, technology will play a key role in training the next generation of drivers. Trucking is one of the more dangerous professions in the U.S., but advances in vehicle safety technologies, such as dash cams and other advanced driver assistance systems, are making it safer.
Kreilkamp’s Penneau says it is this kind of technology that gives him confidence that this pilot program will succeed. “There is a lot of concern about whether 18- to 20-year-olds are mature enough. If this was 20 or 25 years ago, I probably would not be in favor of this program. But with today’s technology, we can train these drivers safely. His company saw a 95% decrease in unsafe events per thousand miles — a key metric they use to measure driver safety — in one year after deploying dash cams, which are one of the safety technologies required by the apprenticeship program.
“With a driver-facing camera, carriers have more safety visibility in the cab,” says Keith Frantz, DOT manager at Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland, a large trucking company that is considering applying to the apprenticeship program. “As a result, a carrier can coach young drivers on risky behaviors early while they're still in the incipient stage, before they become ingrained, everyday habits.”
With this technology comes the important balancing between safety and privacy. But as safety technologies advance and become more prevalent and better understood by both drivers and carriers — and as the demographics of the driver workforce change — driver attitudes towards in-cab technology are evolving as well. Boldin says in his experience, “There is less stress and worry from younger drivers about having these new safety technologies in the cab.”
One Piece of a Complicated Puzzle
This is the largest pilot program the FMCSA has ever run. The data it yields over the next three years will determine whether the age requirement for interstate trucking is changed, either through regulatory action from the FMCSA or statutory action by Congress.
There is, of course, much more work to be done to address the driver shortage, including improving the driver experience, reducing barriers for women, and beyond. As many across the industry have pointed out, even the best recruiting efforts will be fruitless if not paired with broader changes. But this program is a step in the right direction — a way to invest in the next generation of drivers while supporting them with the training and safety technology to set them up for success from the start.
Caitlyn Chacon is a senior counsel on the Legal and Policy teams at Samsara Inc. Samsara’s Connected Operations Cloud allows businesses that depend on physical operations to harness IoT (Internet of Things) data to develop actionable business insights and improve their operations. It also offers its AI Dash Cam. Chacon helps Samsara navigate regulatory issues and shapes the company's public policy priorities.
This article was authored and edited according to HDT editorial standards and style to provide useful information to our readers. Opinions expressed may not reflect those of HDT.