The driver of a big rig over a single lane could soon be one of these teenagers
On the grounds of Williamsport High School in western Maryland, three 17-year-olds pile into the cab of a white Volvo truck, pencils and pads in hand.
They record the odometer, check the warning lights, sound the horn and test the brakes. It’s all part of what’s called a pre-trip inspection.
In the real world, the process takes about 10 minutes, but today the students move slowly and methodically, under the watchful eye of their instructor, Eric Young.
“This is a $100,000 truck,” says Young. “If you kill the engine due to carelessness, you will be looking for a new job.”
This fall, for the first time, this introduction to trucking course is being offered at Williamsport High School as part of a nationwide effort to steer young drivers toward an industry in desperate need of workers.
Over the next decade, the trucking industry says it will need to hire more than a million drivers
The American Trucking Association predicts that trucking companies will need to hire nearly 1.2 million drivers over the next decade.
Part of that is due to a rapidly aging workforce: The average age of long-haul truck drivers is 46, according to the group. And when lifting heavy pallets of goods is part of the job, the number of drivers becomes even smaller.
Another reason is lifestyle. Many long-haul truckers say the wages aren’t high enough to make up for the endless days on the road away from their families. The turnover in the industry is high.
One idea that’s gaining traction: Getting young drivers into the industry earlier.
Traditionally, trucking was not among the vocational programs offered in high schools, in part because of age restrictions for interstate transportation. Federal law requires commercial vehicle drivers to be at least 21 years old to cross state lines.
“That’s where you make most of your money,” says Joshua Hewitt, a 17-year-old Williamsport High School student enrolled in the trucking department. “You can make money in the state, but across the state, going from the West Coast to the East Coast – that’s where you make the most money.”
But now, the federal government is piloting a three-year apprentice program that will allow 18- to 20-year-olds to drive commercial vehicles on interstate routes, opening up career opportunities for high school graduates that didn’t exist before.
An increasing number of secondary schools they try to take advantage of that opportunity. At Williamsport High, the goal is to prepare students to take their commercial driver’s license tests when they turn 18. After that, they have one road skills course to take nearby college before they can get commercial licenses.
“By August, they could be making a six-figure salary,” Young says.
Teenagers’ lack of interest in school led to the creation of the transportation program
The idea for the truck course at Williamsport High School came from Assistant Principal Adam Parry.
A few years ago, Parry spoke to a group of sophomores, including Tucker Bubacz, a lovable farm kid who grew up around trucks and tractors.
“He wasn’t doing well academically. So when that happens, you sit down and have that discussion to figure out what’s going on,” Parry says.
The assistant director saw the lack of enthusiasm. Bubacz and his friends were not motivated by school. They were also not particularly excited about the vocational programs on offer, including construction and hospitality. But he had a hunch that transportation might be different.
Williamsport is located along two major interstates, just minutes away from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. A trucker friend told Parry about the huge demand for drivers.
“From his point of view, there’s going to be fifty-something thousand jobs in this area alone over the next five to 10 years,” says Parry.
Therefore, he took the idea of a truck class past Bubacz.
“Yes, I want to drive a truck!” was the teenager’s emphatic reply. He is now one of three students enrolled in the inaugural class.
Teenagers aren’t driving interstates yet
Department of Transportation Pilot program for safe driver training was approved by Congress in 2021 as part of bipartisan infrastructure bill. The program aims to enroll several thousand trainees over three years.
It’s been a slow start so far.
To date, half a dozen truck carriers have been approved for the program.
These companies must first sign up experienced drivers to supervise trainees before they can bring on trainee drivers themselves.
At DOT Foods, one of the participating companies, director of transportation Dave Hess says he has no qualms about putting 18- to 20-year-olds on interstate routes as long as they show they’re fit.
“We’re not going to put anyone on the road who can’t operate equipment and be safe,” Hess says. “You have immature 45-year-olds. So it’s really about the person, their skills, their understanding [Department of Transportation] laws.”
When the apprenticeship program was first proposed, they advocated safety. including the National Transportation Safety Board, quickly raised red flags. Teenage drivers can be easily distracted. They have higher drop rates. Studies have shown that young drivers often underestimate the dangers.
Road hazards are a topic of frequent discussion at Williamsport High.
“Sometimes it’s very dangerous to go downhill,” says Hewitt. “Your 80,000 pound vehicle — that can kill anyone.”
Bubacz, who learned to drive a tractor as a child, is nervous about other drivers.
“You can be the best driver there is, but there’s always a bad driver who can screw something up,” he says.
A younger workforce may be suitable for the industry
There are some advantages to having younger people behind the wheel.
Recent graduates tend to have fewer family responsibilities. Their bodies have yet to withstand the wear and tear of a working life.
They could bring fresh energy to an aging workforce.
While Bubacz thinks he’ll opt for daily trucking, Hewitt envisions his life on the road.
“You can sleep anywhere in the truck, as long as you’re at a truck stop or somewhere on the side of the road — whatever you want to watch at night,” he says.
Their classmate Peter Vilas Novas sees trucks as a way to see the country.
“Just traveling and seeing places while doing your job and making money,” he says.
High on his list – California.
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