White House Revs Up Trucker Recruitment Drive

Date: Friday, December 17, 2021
Source: The Wall Street Journal

The Biden administration unveiled a plan aimed at boosting the number of commercial truck drivers as part of a broader push to unclog supply-chain bottlenecks.

Administration officials on Thursday said the plan aims to get more drivers on the road in the coming months by making it easier and faster for them to get certified and by jump-starting or expanding apprenticeship programs through carriers and other employers with trucking fleets. Overland Park, Kan.-based trucker Yellow Corp. and grocery chain Albertsons Cos. are among the companies that have committed to such programs.

The plan also aims to improve industry retention and the quality of trucking jobs, senior administration officials said. The Transportation and Labor departments will examine how drivers are paid—a sore spot for truckers who often spend hours waiting to pick up or unload freight—and investigate truck-leasing programs that administration officials said prey on drivers. The agencies will also get feedback from industry groups and labor unions.

The programs aren’t likely to have an immediate impact on bottlenecks tied to scarce trucking capacity and labor-strapped distribution hubs as a flood of imports overwhelms domestic logistics networks. But officials said the plan would help address pandemic-driven delays in getting commercial driver’s licenses and tackle longstanding challenges in the profession such as high turnover, demonstrating the administration’s support for drivers and the trucking industry, which moves more than 70% of domestic freight.

The initiative proposes to bolster efforts across government agencies and private-sector employers to expand the recruitment pipeline, officials said. They said it would support workforce-development programs, including some in the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package signed last month, aimed at attracting more veterans, women and young people to the profession.

The trucking industry has long churned through drivers, especially for long-haul work that keeps workers away from home for long stretches. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, making on-the-job conditions harder and prompting some drivers to leave the industry for other work that pays better or has more-regular hours.

The American Trucking Associations, an industry group, has said the sector is some 80,000 drivers short of the labor force needed to keep goods moving freely this year. The driver population is aging, and women account for about 8% of all truck drivers, the group said.

The infrastructure bill included a provision to set up a pilot program allowing some 18- to 20-year-olds to drive big rigs across state lines, a job now limited to drivers 21 and older. Highway-safety advocates say that could make roads more dangerous.

The ATA backed that provision, along with others in the package aimed at promoting the recruitment and retention of women in the trucking industry and boosting transportation-sector diversity. The group on Thursday called the Biden administration’s plan “a robust training opportunity for future commercial truck drivers” and said apprenticeships would help people enter the profession without incurring substantial debt.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents truck drivers at companies including Yellow Corp., ArcBest Corp’s ABF Freight System Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc., said it would work with the Biden administration to get more employers to adopt the apprenticeship model.

Some truck drivers say there isn’t a shortage of people certified to drive trucks. They say many leave the industry after only a few years on the job because of low pay and poor working conditions.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents small fleets and drivers that own or operate individual heavy-duty trucks, said Thursday that attracting and training new drivers won’t solve the larger problem of retention, though the group supports some elements of the plan such as the driver-compensation analysis.

Trucking companies have been raising driver wages in an effort to boost recruitment and retention, and expanding training programs aimed at funneling new drivers into their fleets. The sector added 5,600 jobs in November in the sixth straight month of gains, according to seasonally adjusted Labor Department data, bringing overall payrolls closer to pre-pandemic levels, though trucking capacity remains tight on robust transportation demand.

Thursday’s actions mark the latest effort from the Biden administration to address supply-chain problems. The administration has coordinated with ports; major transportation companies; lumber, semiconductor and other producers; and retailers.

While there has been some easing, problems persist. The backup of container ships waiting to unload at the California ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach keeps getting bigger, for example, hitting a record Wednesday of 102 vessels.

The administration has been eager to demonstrate steps it has taken, though officials have also stressed that the supply chain is largely run by the private sector. The administration has also raised questions of price gouging, prompting some pushback from the business community.


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