Amanda Berg for NPR
Three 17-year-olds with pens and notepads squeezed into the cab of a white Volvo truck on the playground of Williamsport High School in western Maryland.
They record the odometer, check the warning lights, honk the horn and test the brakes. This is all part of what is called a pre-trip inspection.
In the real world, the process would take about 10 minutes, but today the students moved slowly and methodically under the supervision of their mentor, Eric Young.
“It’s a $100,000 truck,” Young said. “If you blow up your engine by negligence, you’re going to be looking for a new job.”
This fall, Williamsport High School opened its first introduction to trucking classes as part of a nationwide push for young drivers into an industry that desperately needs workers.
Over the next decade, trucking industry says it will need to hire more than 1 million drivers
The American Trucking Association estimates that trucking companies will need to hire nearly 1.2 million drivers over the next decade.
Part of the reason is a rapidly aging workforce: The average age of a long-haul truck driver is 46, according to the group. When carrying heavy pallets of cargo as part of the job, the number of drivers gets smaller.
Another reason is lifestyle. Many long-haul truck drivers say the pay isn’t enough to make up for the endless days on the road away from their families. The industry has a high turnover.
An increasingly popular idea: getting young drivers into the industry earlier.
Trucking has traditionally not been part of the vocational curriculum offered by high schools, in part because of age restrictions on interstate trucking. Federal law requires commercial vehicle drivers to be at least 21 years old to cross state lines.
“This is where you make the most money,” said Joshua Hewitt, a 17-year-old senior at Williamsport High School who took a trucking class. “You can make money within the state, but within the state, from coast to coast — that’s where you make the most money.”
But now, the federal government is piloting a three-year apprenticeship program that will allow 18- to 20-year-olds to drive commercial vehicles on interstates, offering high school graduates career opportunities that didn’t exist before.
More and more high schools are looking to seize this opportunity. At Williamsport High School, the goal is to prepare students to take the commercial driver’s license test at age 18.After that, they can A nearby community college before a business license can be obtained.
“By August, they could be making six-figure salaries,” Young said.
Teen disinterest in school drives creation of freight program
The idea for Williamsport High School’s freight class came from Assistant Principal Adam Parry.
A few years ago, Parry was talking to a group of sophomores, including Tucker Bubacz, a dashing farm kid who grew up around trucks and tractors.
“He didn’t do well academically. So when that happens, you sit down and talk about what’s going on,” Parry said.
The vice-chancellor saw a gap in enthusiasm. Bubacz and his friends weren’t motivated by school. They were also not particularly excited about the vocational courses on offer, including construction and hospitality. But he has a hunch that trucking might be different.
Williamsport is located along two major interstates and is just minutes from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. A truck driver friend told Parry the huge demand for drivers.
“From his point of view, over the next five to ten years there will be more than 50,000 jobs in this field alone,” Parry said.
So he came up with the idea of starting a freight class on Bubacz.
“Yeah, I want to drive a truck!” was the boy’s strong reaction. He is now one of three students enrolled in the inaugural class.
Teens Haven’t Driven Interstates Yet
DOT’s Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program to be approved by Congress in 2021 as part of the program Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. The scheme aims to enrol thousands of apprentices over three years.
So far, it’s been a slow start.
So far, six trucking companies have been approved to join the program.
These companies must recruit experienced drivers to supervise apprentices before they can bring their own apprentice drivers.
At DOT Foods, one of the participating companies, transportation director Dave Hess said he doesn’t hesitate to put 18- to 20-year-olds on interstates as long as they prove they can.
“We’re not going to put anyone on the road who can’t handle equipment and safety,” Hess said. “You have immature 45-year-olds. So it’s really up to the people, their skills, what they’re comfortable with. [Department of Transportation] law. “
Safety advocates when the apprenticeship program was first introduced. The National Transportation Safety Board, including the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, was quick to raise red flags.teenage driver It’s easy to get distracted. They have a higher crash rate. Young drivers are more likely to underestimate the dangers, the study found.
The dangers of the road are a frequent topic of discussion at Williamsport High School.
“Sometimes it’s very dangerous to go downhill,” Hewitt said. “Your 80,000-pound car — it could kill anyone.”
Bubacz, who learned to drive a tractor as a child, was nervous about other drivers.
“You can be the best driver, but there are always bad drivers that can screw something up,” he said.
Young workforce could be a good fit for the industry
There are some benefits to letting young people drive.
Fresh high school seniors typically have fewer family responsibilities. Their bodies have yet to withstand the wear and tear of work life.
They can bring new energy to an aging workforce.
Bubacz thought he would opt for a day truck, while Hewitt imagined his life on the road.
“You can sleep anywhere in the truck, as long as you’re at the truck stop, or somewhere on the side of the road — whatever you want to see at night,” he said.
Their classmate Peter Vilas Novas saw freight as a way to get to know the country.
“Just traveling and seeing places while working and earning money,” he said.
At the top of his list – California.