Feds pushing big rig teen apprentice program amid truck driver shortage, supply chain crisis

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In an attempt to remedy at least one contributing factor in the ongoing U.S. supply chain crisis, the federal government will soon allow teenagers to become truck drivers under a new apprenticeship program that was given life by the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

Currently, most states allow persons 18 and over to become truckers, but they cannot drive across state lines until they are 21. The new pilot program, first introduced by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in 2020, would change that practice and allow those aged 18 to 20 years to operate commercial vehicles in an interstate capacity.

The program must first obtain approval from the Office of Management (OMB) – part of the Executive Branch – before it can begin accepting applications through its website.

It is projected that the trucking industry will lose some 600,000 drivers by 2028, and the Transportation Department estimates that 80,000 new drivers are needed in the next year to compensate for the exodus. Bloated agencies such as the American Trucking Associations and the Commercial Vehicle Training Association are in full support of the proposed three-year program, but it faces criticism from highway safety advocates and the non-commercial driving public.

Peter Kurdock, general counsel for Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, claimed federal data shows that younger drives are more likely to cause accidents than older, more experienced drivers.

“This is no surprise to any American who drives a vehicle,” he said, according to Daily Mail.

Kurdock also cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which says that teenagers lack the cognitive maturity to correctly analyze dangerous situations.

The Department of Transportation announced Thursday that it will fund over $32 million directed to states in order to improve their commercial certification programs. Administration officials have said “outdated infrastructure, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a historic volume of goods moving through our economy have strained capacity across the supply chain, including in trucking,” and that the “pandemic exacerbated longstanding workforce challenges in the trucking industry.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the initiative will keep things moving in an otherwise beleaguered industry.

“In some parts of the trucking industry, 90 percent of drivers turn over each year,” he said in a statement. “Making sure truck drivers are paid and treated fairly is the right thing to do, and it will help with both recruiting new drivers and keeping experienced drivers on the job.”

Some critics, however, point out that the government is simply trying to find a more complex and dangerous solution to what can be remedied simply by paying experienced drivers more and dropping vaccine mandates for long-haul drivers who necessarily must drive across state lines.

The program is slated to run for three years, at which point the FMCSA must report its findings to Congress with assessments and recommendations as to whether or not the apprentices are as skilled and safe as older drivers.

About 72 percent of all goods transported in the U.S. are carried by truckers.

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