Amanda Berg for NPR
On the grounds of Williamsport High School in western Maryland, three 17-year-olds in the cab of a white Volvo truck, pens and pads in hand.
They record the odometer, check the warning lights, honk the horn and test the brakes. This is part of the so-called 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.
“It’s a $100,000 truck,” Young says. “If you blow the engine due to carelessness, you’re going to 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 push to guide young drivers toward an industry in high demand for workers.
Over the next decade, the trucking industry says it will need to hire more than one million drivers
The American Trucking Association projects that trucking companies will hire nearly 1.2 million drivers over the next decade.
Part of that is due to a rapidly aging workforce: The median age of long-haul truck drivers is 46, the group said. And when it comes to lifting heavy pallets as part of the task, the number of drivers becomes even smaller.
Another reason is lifestyle. Many long-haul truckers say the wages aren’t high enough to cover the endless days on the road leaving their families behind. Turnover in business is high.
One idea gaining traction: Getting young drivers into the industry earlier.
Traditionally, trucking has not been included in vocational programs offered in high schools because of age restrictions on interstate trucking. Federal law requires drivers of commercial vehicles to be at least 21 years old to cross state lines.
“This is where you make the most money,” says Joshua Hewitt, a 17-year-old senior at Williamsport High School enrolled in a trucking class. “You can make money in the state, but over the state, you go from the West Coast to the East Coast — that’s where you make the most money.”
But now, the federal government is rolling out a three-year training program that allows 18- to 20-year-olds to drive commercial vehicles on interstate routes, opening career opportunities previously unavailable to high school graduates.
The number of high schools is increasing They are looking to take advantage of that opportunity. At Williamsport High, the goal is to prepare students to take their commercial driver’s license permit test when they turn 18. The nearest community college before they get their business licenses.
“By August, they could be making six-figure salaries,” says Young.
A teenager’s lack of interest in school prompted the creation of the trucking program
The idea for the trucking curriculum at Williamsport High School originated with Assistant Principal Adam Barry.
A few years ago, Barry was talking to a group of sophomores, including Tucker Bubox, a personable farm kid who grew up around trucks and tractors.
“He’s not doing well academically. So when that happens, you sit down and have that discussion to figure out what’s going on,” says Barry.
The assistant principal noticed the excitement gap. Bubacz and his friends are not motivated by school. They are not particularly enthusiastic about career projects including construction and hospitality. But he had an inkling that trucking might be different.
Williamsport sits between two major states, just minutes from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. A trucker friend told Barry about the huge demand for drivers.
“In his view, there will be 50,000 jobs in this area alone in the next five to 10 years,” says Barry.
So he ran the idea of a trucking class past Bubacz.
“Yes, I want to drive a truck!” was the young man’s emphatic reply. He is now one of three students enrolled in the elementary class.
Teenagers don’t drive interstates yet
of Transport Department Safe Driving Training Pilot Program In part approved by Congress in 2021 Bilateral Infrastructure Act. The program seeks to recruit several thousand trainees over three years.
So far, it’s off to a slow start.
To date, half a dozen trucking companies have been approved for the program.
Those companies must first sign up experienced drivers who supervise the trainers, who can then bring in the trainee drivers themselves.
Dave Hess, director of transportation at DOT Foods, one of the participating companies, said he has no qualms about getting 18- to 20-year-olds to prove they’re capable on interstate routes.
“We’re not going to put anybody on the road who can’t handle equipment and be safe,” Hess says. “You’ve got immature 45-year-olds. So it really depends on the person, their skills, their understanding. [Department of Transportation] Laws.”
When the training program was first proposed, defense advocates. Including the National Transportation Safety Board, raised red flags. Teenage drivers Can be easily distracted. They have high accident rates. Research has found that young drivers are more likely to underestimate the dangers.
The dangers of the road are a frequently discussed topic at Williamsport High.
“Sometimes it’s too dangerous to go downhill,” says Hewitt. “Your 80,000-pound vehicle — it could kill anybody.”
Bubox, who learned to drive a tractor as a child, is nervous about other drivers.
“You can be the best driver, but some bad driver always messes something up,” he says.
A younger worker may be better suited to the industry
Having younger people behind the wheel has some advantages.
Recent high school graduates generally have fewer family responsibilities. Their bodies have yet to withstand the wear and tear of a working life.
They can bring new energy to aging workers.
While Bubacz thinks he’s opting for daytime trucking, Hewitt envisions a life for himself on the road.
“You can sleep anywhere inside your truck as long as you’re at a truck stop or on the side of the road — whatever you want to see at night,” he says.
Their classmate Peter Vilas Novas sees trucking as a way to see the country.
“Traveling and seeing places while doing your job and making money,” he says.
High on his list – California.