The long-awaited federal apprenticeship program to develop under-21 truckers is now open for business.  -

The long-awaited federal apprenticeship program to develop under-21 truckers is now open for business.

The books are now open for the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program (SDAP). The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration got the ball rolling on July 26 by launching a participation portal so that individuals and common carriers can apply to join the program.

The SDAP program aims to help individuals between 18 and 20 years gain employment in interstate trucking while assisting trucking companies in the hiring and training of such new drivers. According to FMCSA, the process requires carriers to adhere to rigorous training standards that pair each young driver with an experienced mentor-driver.

A product of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed into law last year, the program has been years in the making as a partial remedy for the yawning shortage of long-haul CDL truck drivers.

The effort to gain a legal means to allow under-21 CDL holders to drive anywhere began back in 2015 with a bipartisan Senate that would have required FMCSA to conduct a pilot study on authorizing contiguous states to sign compacts to standardize CDL requirements, including for under-21 drivers.

That proposal didn’t catch a gear, but eventually morphed into a push for a graduated licensing program. And that idea ultimately led to a provision within IIJA calling for FMCSA to set up this apprenticeship pilot program for CDL holders under the age of 21 to qualify to run interstate.

The thinking behind SDAP includes in large measure the common-sense recognition that drivers under 21 holding intrastate commercial driver’s licenses perform the same work as other drivers who operate across state lines. Therefore, those 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old drivers, properly trained, should also be allowed to operate commercial vehicles in interstate commerce.

The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program will involve only pre-approved motor carriers and those individual 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old drivers holding CDLs as well as qualified driver-mentors to work with them.

To be sure, SDAP is a big step in the right direction for growing trucking’s ranks by opening them to qualified drivers in their late teen years. For that reason — and because the program is slated to run for three years — there’s no time like right now for carriers to get in on the ground floor and start the application process.

The first step, of course, is to apply by going to the agency’s SDAP page. The application asks if you are seeking to join as a motor carrier or as an apprentice driver or as an experienced driver (who would serve as a driver-mentor.) A word to the wise: If you are not registered with the U.S. Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship Program, you must join that as well. 

A notice placed in the Federal Register for Jan. 14, 2022 by FMCSA points out that the pilot program proposed in a September 2020 Federal Register notice and the apprenticeship pilot program starting now (authorized by the IIJA bill) are “substantially the same.”

Both call for two probationary periods, one for 120 hours and the other for 280 hours, and the use of specific vehicle safety technologies. Additionally, the exemptions required for both programs are the same. Due to all this similarity, the determined that the comments received under the September 2020 notice satisfy the notice and comment requirements.

FMCSA pointed out that of 191 distinctly submitted comments, 127 favored the proposal, while 50 opposed it. Twenty members of Congress submitted a letter to the docket supporting the program. “Other commenters remained neutral, offered conditional support, provided responses to the questions posed in the notice, or offered other suggestions,” the agency noted.

For detailed information on training qualifications, participation requirements, and instructions for the application process, go to this dedicated SDAP website.

This Washington Watch commentary first appeared in the August 2022 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.

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