Trucking industry tackles longstanding debate of allowing interstate drivers under age 21

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,212 views 

The trucking industry continues to debate whether the age of interstate truck drivers should be reduced from 21 to 18.

A new apprenticeship program might help settle a debate over whether 18- to 20-year-old truck drivers can safely haul interstate freight. However, the program has struggled with low participation levels as carriers cite unexpected challenges to joining it to draw from the driver pool.

Trucking industry drivers comprise interstate drivers or those hauling freight across state lines. Existing law in 49 states, including Arkansas, allows 18- to 20-year-old intrastate drivers or those hauling freight within a state, but cargo crossing state lines must be transported by a driver at least 21.

Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said the minimum age to engage in interstate commerce should be reduced from 21 to 18 and that employees and their employers are responsible for determining who’s qualified for a job.

“As an industry, we are at an unfair advantage, whether you’re talking about manufacturing, construction, agriculture (and) all of those other industries that are competing for the same talent pool as trucking are able to seamlessly transition from high school to employment,” said Newton, noting that the trucking industry will remain at a disadvantage to recruit talent from high school with the federal age regulation in place.

In November 2021, the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, or Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), required the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to establish a program to allow up to 3,000 of 18- to 20-year-old apprentices to haul interstate freight while under the supervision of an experienced driver. The three-year Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program started in late July when carriers could apply to participate. The FMCSA must report its findings and recommendations to Congress after the program is completed.

But federal legislators and trade group leaders, some of whom supported the infrastructure law, are concerned that a lack of program participation will not allow for the intended outcomes, including helping carriers hire and train new drivers.

Shannon Newton

Newton cited a recent letter that a group of legislators sent to FMCSA Administrator Robin Hutcheson about the challenges carriers face in participating in the program.

“Congress established this program … to demonstrate how 18- to 20-year-old drivers may safely operate trucks in interstate commerce, just as many young truck drivers already do in 49 states and the District of Columbia,” the letter shows. “Managed correctly, this program could give young drivers the experience they need to enter a crucial transportation job. Instead, FMCSA saddled the program with unnecessary requirements — none of which are found in the program’s authorizing statute — that appear designed to doom SDAP.”

Newton explained that the Biden administration added the critical challenges after the infrastructure law was approved, including requiring participating carriers to register their apprenticeship program with the U.S. Department of Labor and that driver-facing cameras must be equipped on the trucks the apprentices use.

The legislators questioned the logic of those requirements, which were not in the infrastructure law, and requested that Hutcheson provide information on why they were included.

“Rather than permitting FMCSA to ‘swiftly and safely’ stand up SDAP, these two requirements have depressed participation despite our understanding of significant interest in the program,” according to the letter, noting the program had only 21 carriers and four apprentices. “It is therefore likely that FMCSA will not have adequate data to assess the program’s usefulness unless it removes these unnecessary barriers to participation.”

In a recent Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., was concerned about the low participation rate in the pilot and that it won’t provide enough safety metrics to inform policymaking on the issue. Hyde-Smith had co-sponsored the Drive Safe Act, which was the basis for the program included in the infrastructure law.

“There’s such a driver shortage in the trucking industry,” said Hyde-Smith, before asking Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg what federal agencies are doing to improve program participation. “This is huge in Mississippi. We need drivers.”

Buttigieg said the agencies would like a higher participation rate and highlighted work to inform the 1,500 carriers that qualify for the program, a social media campaign and outreach to the 2023 high school graduating class.

“Any requirement that is in the program is for the purpose of safety,” Buttigieg said. “Safety will always be our first priority. But we are very interested in getting the level of participation that’ll get us good data to see if we can continue in this direction without compromising safety.”

Newton said she’s unaware of any Arkansas carrier participating in the program, but carriers in the state are interested in it. She added that Arkansas carriers have apprenticeship programs outside the one established through the infrastructure law.

Greer Woodruff

In April 2022, at a White House event, Greer Woodruff, senior vice president of safety, security and driver personnel at Lowell-based J.B. Hunt Transport Services, said that in 2015 the carrier was approved as a registered apprenticeship employer. Addressing President Biden and other federal officials, including Buttigieg, Woodruff spoke on behalf of J.B. Hunt and The Trucking Alliance about the Biden administration’s Trucking Action Plan, calling it “a strategy to address the workforce issues facing the freight transportation industry.”

Woodruff said that while becoming a registered apprenticeship employer “was a strenuous process, the results continue to deliver. The Trucking Action Plan will accelerate the ability to implement programs like ours, creating opportunities for transportation companies to experience similar success.”

He also stressed the importance of the Department of Labor’s apprenticeship program that’s “recognized as the gold standard of workforce training.” He thanked Biden “for helping address a critical shortage in our nation’s supply chain network.”

“I am happy to report today that every member carrier of The Trucking Alliance — companies that collectively employ more than 80,000 drivers — have committed to offering driver registered apprenticeships. This has created more than 200 apprenticeship locations across the country, backfilling many positions and creating more opportunities.”

Asked whether Woodruff could provide follow-up comments about the apprenticeship program, J.B. Hunt said Woodruff was unavailable before press time. Also, executives of area trucking companies did not respond to multiple requests for comment on reducing the driver age or the new apprenticeship program.

Jay Grimes

Jay Grimes, director of federal affairs for Grain Valley, Mo.-based Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), said the trade group opposes reducing the interstate driver age primarily because of highway safety concerns.

“When you look at all driving statistics and safety studies that have been done for the general population under 21, younger … more inexperienced drivers are more likely to be involved with crashes,” Grimes said. “There [are] some biological reasons for that in terms of brain development for people under 21.”

Grimes also noted an ongoing debate about whether a driver shortage exists. “We disagree with that notion,” he said. “We think it’s more of a driver retention problem.”

He attributed the driver retention problem to inadequate pay, long hours and tough working conditions in a heavily-regulated industry “that make long-haul trucking a difficult career and profession.”

He added that by bringing younger drivers into the industry, they might be more likely to be taken advantage of by carriers and not paid adequately.

Grimes said the focus should be to fix the existing problems with the position instead of opening it to younger drivers. He also said he wasn’t surprised to learn about the limited participation in the new apprenticeship program because of the existing challenges in the profession, such as pay or a lack of available truck parking.

“There’s not a whole lot of things making truck driving an attractive profession no matter how old you are,” Grimes said. “We want to see some of the larger carriers, who are pushing under-21 drivers, fix some things about wages and working conditions first before they bring a new pool of folks into the industry.”