For years, Jett Sy worked as an in-store merchandise manager for Sam’s Club and Walmart. But now he’s got his eye on a new profession: truck driving.
It’s a good time to train to be a truck driver. The trucking industry is short more than 63,000 drivers this year, according to the American Trucking Associations, and that shortage is only expected to grow. The ATA estimates it could swell to a shortage of more than 174,000 drivers by 2026.
“Truck drivers are in high, high demand right now,” said Don Lefeve, president and chief executive of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association in Virginia. “Trucking company executives that have been in this business 30 years haven’t seen it this bad.”
“I literally left my career,” Sy said. The 38-year-old from Santa Clarita, Calif., started truck driver training in September, lured by the prospect of almost doubling his salary and working weekdays only.
Sy learned to operate a 38-foot tractor-trailer at the GSF Truck & Bus Training school in Los Angeles. After three weeks of intense study he will take his behind-the-wheel test at the California Department of Motor Vehicles to get his commercial driver’s license, or CDL.
“I feel like I’m going to be ready,” said Sy, who’s been working with instructors to learn about air-brake inspections and to memorize dozens of truck parts, as well as operate the vehicle. He already has a job lined up with his father-in-law’s trucking company.
The demand for drivers has grown for several years but is now skyrocketing. In 2016, GSF graduated 71 drivers. But “2018 has been way higher,” said Edna Renderos, who founded the school in 1996.
Job placements also have increased. One hundred percent of graduates are finding jobs, said Renderos, who works with recruiters from major carriers including Schneider and May Trucking Co., as well as local haulers for Costco, Walmart and Home Depot.
Deana Deakin wants to join them. After working a series of minimum wage jobs, the 49-year-old former restaurant worker said she was excited at the prospect of making $18.87 per hour to start as a trucker.
Deakin also is looking forward to “full benefits, paid vacation, a 401(k) plan, medical, dental and vision.”
“I can’t wait,” she said. Deakin is scheduled to take her DMV test Nov. 11.
The starting wage for commercial truck drivers is between $48,000 and $53,000, Lefeve said. CVTA, the largest association for commercial truck driver training programs in the U.S., represents nearly 200 training providers in 42 states. It collectively trains more than 50,000 commercial drivers annually.
Demand for drivers is so high that some companies — including Covenant and U.S. Express — are offering $40,000 to $50,000 in driver sign-up bonuses, Lefeve said.
Many trucking companies also will reimburse their drivers’ training costs. Entry-level truck driver training, which usually takes between four and six weeks, ranges from about $4,000 to $7,000.
For her part, Deakin is excited about more than just the money.
“It’s inspiring to me that when I came here, there were other women,” she said. “Usually this was a very male-dominated career. Women weren’t getting into it, but since I’ve been at this school, I’ve seen at least eight women training here.
Women make up 47 percent of the overall workforce in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, for the last 15 years they’ve made up between 4.5 and 6 percent of truck drivers, the ATA said.
Minorities have been steadily increasing. They now account for 38.7 percent of drivers — an increase of 12 percentage points since 2001.
Women and minorities will be needed to meet truck demand as large parts of the existing workforce retire. The average age of a for-hire over-the-road truck driver is 49, compared with 42 for all U.S. workers, according to the ATA. The median age for private fleet drivers is even older: 52.
The relatively high age of the existing workforce, as well as a lack of qualified drivers, are major reasons for the driver shortage, according to industry officials.
“Traditionally, the over-the-road companies were the ones hiring the entry-level drivers,” Lefeve said.
But now local and regional companies are hiring entry-level drivers., he said.
“It used to be the industry standard was two years of experience,” he said. “You’re now seeing companies reevaluate that, in part because of the need.”
To help fulfill that need, the CVTA is advocating for regulatory changes, including efforts to reduce skill testing delays. California, New York and Georgia are among a handful of states that are struggling with a backlog of CDL testing appointments.
“A driver may start training and exit after four weeks, but given the delays, you may have to wait upwards of 60 days to secure an appointment,” Lefeve said. “And if you fail, you’d have to wait that same amount of time to get back in for a retest.”
The CVTA currently is working with states such as California to allow schools to test their own students. This would expedite the process of completing school, getting a license and starting work.
The association is also working to lower the interstate driving age to 18 from its current minimum of 21.
“We think younger drivers with proper training would be capable of entering this career out of high school,” Lefeve said, adding that doing so would help the trucking industry compete with other industries. “Because if I’m 18, I can go to HVAC school or get some other training, but if I want to drive an interstate truck, I have to wait until I’m 21.”
The average age of a student coming to a CVTA member school is about 35.
“What that tells me is that trucking is becoming their second or third career,” Lefeve said.
There are currently 3.5 million truck drivers employed in the U.S. But over the next decade, the trucking industry will need to hire nearly 90,000 new drivers per year, the ATA said. Replacing retiring truck drivers will account for almost half of the new drivers needed.