New Truck Drivers Train for Some of Supply Chain’s Toughest Jobs Amid Huge Shortage of Truckers

Accompanied by instructor Tony DeVeres from California Truck Driving Academy, right, student driver Edgar Lopez, 23, drives a practice truck along the freeway in Inglewood, Calif., Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The tractor-trailer lurches into gear. As the student driver turns the wheel, eyes swiveling from left to right, the 18-wheeler backs into a yellow box outlined on the pavement. But the truck’s wheels cross the line, a rookie mistake that could mean a collision on a city street or at a cargo terminal.

Instructor Matt Hanlon, 53, who’s been teaching big-rig driving for two decades, shakes his head and tells the trainee to pull the Freightliner forward and try again. His brother Mike, 49, the other half of the instructor team here at SAGE Truck Driving School, yells encouragement.

Much of the nation’s $23 trillion economy rides on the back of trucks such as this one. But as the pandemic upends consumer spending habits, there has never been a bigger mismatch between the mountain of freight that needs to be hauled around the country and the number of truckers willing to do the hauling.

Schools such as SAGE are essential to satisfying the economy’s appetite for drivers. Each year, transport companies replace nine out of every 10 long-haul truckers, after they sour on an exhausting job that keeps them away from home for weeks at a time. The industry’s constant churn is contributing to nationwide supply chain disruptions, as freight sits while dispatchers struggle to fill vacant positions.

Trucker turnover also is drawing attention from the White House. Administration officials on Thursday announced steps aimed at bolstering the ranks of the nation’s roughly 444,000 long-distance truck drivers, down about 25,000 since early 2019, including an expansion of paid apprenticeships and efforts to tap military veterans.

The industry’s urgent need for reinforcements helps explain why the Hanlons today are holding forth on a sloping asphalt lot behind a local community college. Their pupils include the Freightliner driver, an 18-year-old who still has braces on his teeth; a husband-and-wife team hoping to pay off $60,000 in student loans; and an aspiring entrepreneur who sees trucking as a way to make his fortune.

Turning such untrained talent into drivers who can safely command a 40-ton load at highway speeds takes four to six weeks of classroom instruction, observation, and practice behind the wheel.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, David J. Lynch

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