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Amid huge shortage, new truck drivers train for some of supply chain’s toughest jobs

Trucking industry moves 70 percent of nation’s freight but struggles to retain workers

Accompanied by instructor Tony DeVeres from California Truck Driving Academy, right, student driver Edgar Lopez, 23, drives a practice truck along the freeway in Inglewood, Calif., Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
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SCHNECKSVILLE, Pa. — The tractor-trailer lurches into gear. As the student driver turns the wheel, eyes swiveling from left to right, the 18-wheeler backs into a yellow box outlined on the pavement. But the truck’s wheels cross the line, a rookie mistake that could mean a collision on a city street or at a cargo terminal.

Instructor Matt Hanlon, 53, who’s been teaching big-rig driving for two decades, shakes his head and tells the trainee to pull the Freightliner forward and try again. His brother Mike, 49, the other half of the instructor team here at SAGE Truck Driving School, yells encouragement.

Much of the nation’s $23 trillion economy rides on the back of trucks such as this one. But as the pandemic upends consumer spending habits, there has never been a bigger mismatch between the mountain of freight that needs to be hauled around the country and the number of truckers willing to do the hauling.

Schools such as SAGE are essential to satisfying the economy’s appetite for drivers. Each year, transport companies replace nine out of every 10 long-haul truckers, after they sour on an exhausting job that keeps them away from home for weeks at a time. The industry’s constant churn is contributing to nationwide supply chain disruptions, as freight sits while dispatchers struggle to fill vacant positions.

Trucker turnover also is drawing attention from the White House. Administration officials on Thursday announced steps aimed at bolstering the ranks of the nation’s roughly 444,000 long-distance truck drivers, down about 25,000 since early 2019, including an expansion of paid apprenticeships and efforts to tap military veterans.

The industry’s urgent need for reinforcements helps explain why the Hanlons today are holding forth on a sloping asphalt lot behind a local community college. Their pupils include the Freightliner driver, an 18-year-old who still has braces on his teeth; a husband-and-wife team hoping to pay off $60,000 in student loans; and an aspiring entrepreneur who sees trucking as a way to make his fortune.

Turning such untrained talent into drivers who can safely command a 40-ton load at highway speeds takes four to six weeks of classroom instruction, observation, and practice behind the wheel.

“What it really boils down to is: Tell them, tell them and keep telling them,” Hanlon said.

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In February, the federal government for the first time will begin requiring that all new commercial driver license (CDL) applicants be trained in a registered facility using a standard curriculum.

That requirement will be good for business at SAGE — which charges about $5,000 in tuition — but it could aggravate the driver shortage. Small carriers, which often do their own training, and those in rural areas where there may be few approved instructors, fear the regulation will make hiring more cumbersome. Canadian and U.S. government vaccine requirements also loom.

“This is going to further negatively impact an already crippled supply chain,” said Kelly Krapu, director of safety for TrueNorth Compliance Services in West Fargo, N.D.

The Department of Transportation disputes that view and promises that regulators will work with industry representatives to ensure a smooth process.

The government edict comes as driving schools scramble to make up for pandemic closures. SAGE last year fell about 20 percent short of its typical output of 4,000 new drivers, said Chris Thropp, the company’s president.

“We’re very busy right now at the vast majority of our schools,” said Thropp, 61, a former corporate attorney who joined SAGE nearly a quarter century ago. “We’ve definitely seen an uptick in interest.”

The American Trucking Associations (ATA), which represents the industry’s largest carriers, says the United States has a shortage of 80,000 truck drivers. Bob Costello, ATA’s chief economist, blames a number of factors, including an aging workforce that is only 7 percent female and a new federal database that bars truckers with drug and alcohol violations.

“There is no one reason for the driver shortage, which means there is no one solution,” he said.

An independent group, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, says the real problems are long-distance trucking’s unappealing lifestyle and inadequate compensation. Drivers spend weeks away from their families, often struggle to find a place to stop for the night or use the bathroom, and waste several hours each day idling in lines.

“If that time was cut in half, all of those drivers would be that [much] more productive and you might not need more trucks on the road,” said Todd Spencer, the association’s president.

Adjusted for inflation, long-haul drivers’ wages are virtually unchanged since 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Trucking also faces stiff competition for workers from the many warehouses and distribution centers that dot the area around Easton, about 25 miles east of Schnecksville.

“It’s never been more difficult than it is today to find and attract and retain qualified drivers,” John Roberts III, chief executive of J.B. Hunt Transport Services, one of the nation’s largest freight companies, told investors this fall.

The $1 trillion infrastructure legislation President Biden signed last month includes a pilot apprenticeship program for drivers between the ages of 18 and 21, promotes the hiring of female truckers, and authorizes a compensation study.

Despite the long-term plateau in wages, trucking enjoys a reputation as a good-paying blue-collar occupation. Billboards along the nearby Lehigh Valley Thruway advertise truck driving jobs for $31 per hour, plus signing bonus.

Recent pay trends are more favorable. Trucking companies hiked inflation-adjusted pay by about 10 percent during the pandemic, as consumers splurged and demand to move goods jumped, according to the BLS. Long-distance truckers earn an average of nearly $60,000.

Through the first half of this year, states issued a monthly average of roughly 50,000 new licenses, 14 percent higher than the pre-pandemic rate.

One of the newly minted drivers is David Nivar, 32, who trained here for the big rigs after driving a local delivery van. He plans to get a local job in the less-than-truckload market, where companies combine shipments from several customers on a single vehicle.

He’s heard that one trucking company is paying drivers up to $2,200 per week. Four of his friends have already landed jobs with FedEx. Eventually, he plans to run his own freight business.

“Trucking is where it’s at. That’s what everybody tells me,” Nivar said. “The ball’s in my court, the way I see it.”

Long-distance truckers, who haul a full load from a terminal to a single customer, are the toughest jobs to fill. Because of a chronic shortage of parking, drivers often waste up to an hour of their legal driving time looking for a place to stop for the night. Additional hours are wasted waiting to pick up and drop off loads.

As a result, annual turnover in long-haul jobs was 94 percent compared with less than 12 percent for the less-than-truckload segment, according to a 2019 study by Stephen Burks, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota Morris, and Kristen Monaco of the BLS.

Structural factors explain the long-haul industry’s retention problem, Burks said via email. Long distance trucking is a fragmented business with almost no barriers to entry. Virtually anyone can obtain a CDL, lease a truck and begin moving freight around the country.

Fierce competition keeps a lid on wages, since a carrier that raises wages excessively can easily get underpriced by a rival hauler. So trucking companies instead accept high turnover and the headache of near-constant recruitment, said Burks, who drove a tractor-trailer for a decade before becoming an economist.

Some would-be drivers insist they are unfazed. Cameron Thomas, 26, and his wife, Reina, 24, started their training five days after getting married. They are eager to start a life together in the cab of a tractor-trailer.

“We already love spending time together,” Reina said. “And it would be good for money with both of us doing it.”

Federal safety regulations limit truck drivers to 11 hours per day behind the wheel. The Thomases figure they can keep their truck moving almost constantly if one of them sleeps while the other drives.

The couple hopes to pay off Reina’s $60,000 in student loans and then buy some property. She graduated with a bachelor’s in marine science just as the pandemic closed most businesses and eventually landed a job at Petco. Her husband worked for a heating and air-conditioning contractor.

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SAGE emphasizes one-on-one training. Hanlon, who said his father taught him to drive a truck using “the yell-and-scream method,” takes a calmer approach.

Riding shotgun as Mason Mott, 18, steers a tractor trailer around the campus of Lehigh Career and Technical Institute, Hanlon mixes gentle correctives with praise.

Mott was inconsistent in his earlier parking attempts and concedes he has a tendency to fumble the clutch on the 10-speed manual transmission. But Hanlon is reassuring.

“That’s all right. You got to make mistakes to learn,” he said.

Wearing a baseball cap and hoodie, Mott successfully pilots the truck on several laps of the college, as Hanlon alternates between mild rebukes (“both hands on the wheel unless shifting”) and encouragement.

Finally, after Mott executes a tight left turn back into the lot, Hanlon applauds. “Beautiful! Very good. Good job. Perfect,” he said.

Meanwhile, inside a beige single-story building nearby, Sugeidy Sanchez, 24, is receiving her new-student briefing.

Tim Borowski, 52, director of the local SAGE school, runs Sanchez through the program requirements for in-person instruction and online studies at home, advises her on the mandatory physical and drug test, and promises job placement help once she finishes her studies.

A small Christmas tree, decorated with tiny white lights, sits on Borowski’s desk as he delivers a safety lecture.

“Think of these orange [traffic] cones out there as your brother, sister or children. If you run over one, you’ve killed someone,” Borowski said. “Try not to kill the cones.”

Sanchez nods. Eight members of her family are truck drivers, so she understands what the job entails. An uncle, who quit long-haul driving after just six months, tried to talk her out of it, saying the grind would exhaust her.

But Sanchez, the mother of a daughter, 6, and a five-month old son, wants to make as much money as she can, as quickly as she can. Then, she will buy her own truck and stay closer to home.

“I’m looking for something to bring more money into my family,” she said. “I feel this is it.”

Andrew Van Dam in Washington contributed to this report.