WASHINGTON — An effort to recruit teenagers for long-haul trucking jobs has had a slow start, with only 36 young adults signing up for a program that was expected to serve thousands.
Congress created the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law President Joe Biden signed in 2021, touting drivers aged 18 to 20 as a cure for supply chain woes and an alleged shortage of drivers.
Prominent voices in the freight industry have long complained that the minimum age requirement for interstate trucking, which is 21, is a barrier to recruitment, and the apprenticeship initiative was supposed to be a step toward lowering the driving age.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said it expected up to a thousand companies to participate in the pilot, which would test whether younger drivers could be safe enough on the road. Studies generally show that younger drivers are much likelier to be involved in crashes.
Since the apprenticeship program’s launch in July 2022, however, only 112 motor carriers have even applied, according to data from the SDAP. Out of that, only 34 have been approved, with another 36 “pre-qualified,” meaning they could participate soon. So far, just 13 drivers have graduated. The program’s only supposed to last for three years.
It could be that recent high school graduates don’t want to be long-haulers in a hot economy.
Rodger Nicholson, an executive at Ohio freight carrier AWL Transport, which has more than 200 trucks, told HuffPost that qualifying for the apprenticeship program was easy — the problem is that they can’t find apprentices.
“We thought we’d have people knocking down our doors,” Nicholson said. “We’re just shocked that nobody has raised their hand.”
So far, even though AWL Transport is offering to pay drivers to earn their commercial drivers licenses and go through training, it’s got only one qualified applicant — and he lives in Florida.
Nicholson presumed that there’s too little awareness of the program and said that trucking is a hard sell when the labor market is tight and there are lots of other jobs.
“Our drivers are going out on the road, they have to go to the bathroom at a truck stop, take a shower at a truck stop,” Nicholson said. “It’s not like the most stellar thing that most young people want to do now.”
Economists have said low pay and tough work conditions help explain why freight carriers struggle to retain drivers.
Another explanation for low participation in the apprenticeship program is that companies dislike its high-tech safety requirements. Trucks are required to have active collision mitigation braking systems, forward-facing cameras and other advanced safety features, while drivers must complete weekslong probationary periods, including many hours under the tutelage of an experienced driver.
The trucking industry has complained about extra participation requirements added by the FMCSA that were not required by the infrastructure law, including one for video cameras pointed toward the driver at all times.
“The inward-facing cameras, in particular, pushed away at least one of our very large motor carrier members that would have taken a significant percentage of the overall level of apprentices,” said Nathan Mehrens, vice president of workforce policy at the American Trucking Associations, an industry lobby group. “But for that requirement, they would have been on board, would have been participating, and you’d see that 36 [apprentices] number be significantly higher than it is today.”
The FMCSA said it was required to make sure the pilot program is safe, that inward-facing cameras have been shown in past studies to offer safety benefits and that many carriers already use them with new drivers.
“The goal of the pilot program is to gather real-world data to determine whether these younger drivers can operate as safe, or safer, than current drivers while operating beyond intrastate commerce, which is currently limited by regulation,” FMCSA spokesperson Cicely Waters said in an email.
Congress might undo the camera requirement. Last year, the Senate approved an appropriations bill for the Department of Transportation that included language banning the cameras from the pilot program. (The House transportation bill, which hasn’t been approved, has a similar provision.) Congress has struggled to pass appropriations bills and it’s not clear if they will become law anytime soon.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) took credit for adding the anti-camera languagein a press release last year. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing transportation, told HuffPost this week he was unfamiliar with the provision. It’s a tiny part of a much larger piece of legislation that the Senate passed in November.
Zach Cahalan, director of the Truck Safety Coalition, a group that has called on the government to terminate the apprenticeship program, cheered the FMSCA for adding the inward-facing cameras, which Cahalan’s group recommended during the rulemaking process. He also cheered the low participation in the pilot project.
“The public should not be used as guinea pigs for a reckless experiment that corporate trucking has been asking for for over five years,” Cahalan told HuffPost.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said that the House transportation bill lacked a provision striking inward-facing cameras from the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program. The provision is in the House bill and the Senate bill.