Keep on Trucking: Action Needed to Fill New Driver Pipeline
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has reminded many Americans of the value provided by the nation’s transportation industry, with the trucking community chief among them. Occasionally derided in the past, truckers have been seen as a vital cog in the economy that has kept many vital services operating throughout the pandemic.
“We are finally realizing the value of the trucker in commerce in this country. They are very, very important to us,” said John Kearney during an April webinar presented by JOTO PR Disruptors. Kearney is the founder and CEO of Advanced Training Systems, which delivers virtual simulation training.
Despite the growing recognition of the industry’s importance, Kearney cautions that some current restrictions and conditions at the state and local levels are going to seriously threaten the ability for the transportation industry to serve the economy through the crisis and into the eventual recovery.
It starts at the local BMV. Many motor vehicle bureaus are currently closed, or are operating with partial staffs, with Kearney estimating 22 states had closed agencies by late March. This condition is putting a freeze on new drivers getting licensed, an important element in keeping the driver pool populated. Each month, between 20,000 and 40,000 drivers earn CDLs. Given the existing shortfall of 50,000 drivers nationally, any disruption to the flow of new drivers will only exacerbate the driver issue. Not surprising, the biggest gap in the industry is in long-haul truck drivers, perhaps due to drivers being less interested in traveling long distances during the pandemic.
Kearney had three recommendations to at least partially alleviate the problem. For starters, states could begin allowing the permit test to be taken online. “That’s not a difficult thing to do,” he said.
Additionally, state BMVs that remain open to testing could allow drivers from other states to earn their CDL there. Finally, “we also need to consider the federal government making training possible if the states don’t. Let the federal government pass laws and regulations that allow people to be trained and get their CDL if states are closed,” Kearney suggested.
Along those lines, Kearney said another issue facing the industry is the determination that trucking schools are not considered essential businesses, and have been closed in many states. He believes that determination is a mistake that should be revisited.
For the truckers on the road, the record is mostly good, though spotty. Truck stops have remained open in most locations, though the American Trucking Associations had to pressure officials in Pennsylvania, Nebraska and North Dakota to reconsider decisions to close its interstate rest stops. The closures were swiftly lifted.
Those truck stops that have stayed open have responded to the crisis by allowing drivers to park for free and continually spraying down all surfaces, to keep the drivers and employees safe, Kearney said.
Truck stops fill a crucial role, as the nature of a trucker’s vehicles, and the nature of this crisis, makes other types of facilities off limits. “A trucker can’t use a drive-thru. He can’t even park in the parking lot in a lot of these places,” Kearney said.
Drug testing opportunities are also an issue for the industry, as resources that would have gone to testing truck drivers are being diverted to fighting COVID-19. ATA has suggested extending deadlines for drivers who may not be able to access a test during the crisis.
The problems of inaction now will become most acute once business activity resumes, which is why steps must be taken now to ensure the industry remains as close as possible to optimal production levels, Kearney said. “When we come out of this hibernation, if we don’t have the drivers, we’re not going to be able to deliver goods timely. We’re going to have a huge backup of freight.”
And beyond that, Kearney hopes the post-coronavirus environment prompts the federal government to reconsider some of the regulations that have impeded the industry’s ability to function. “Some of the things we do don’t necessarily make for a safer driver or a safer road. In some ways, they prevent the driver from doing what he needs to do,” he said.