For the last decade or so, the driver shortage has been one of the biggest challenges looming in the minds of trucking industry leaders. While the number of new drivers on the road has started to rise in the past few years, the unprecedented crisis of 2020 has thrown yet a new wrench in the growth of the industry.
In this episode of DriverReach Chats, DriverReach CEO Jeremy Reymer sat down with Don Lefeve, President and CEO of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association (CVTA), to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown on new driver training, how new drivers are working to get on the roads, and the long-term impact of 2020 on the ongoing driver shortage.
How the COVID-19 shutdown impacted new driver training
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, states started shutting down like dominos. According to Don, by the end of March/beginning of April, more than 20 states had closed their DMVs. Some driver training schools themselves were shut down as well. Both of these situations are not ideal for getting new drivers on the road, since you need to first train a new driver and then issue a commercial driver license (CDL) at the DMV.
In order to continue operations in the states that were still somewhat open, CVTA worked to ensure their training staff was on the ‘essential workers’ list. Don himself worked with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to ensure driver training schools were able to stay open. This is where some challenges started popping up, including:
- The fact that while some states were following DHS guidelines, other states had their own proclamations in effect, while yet another group said they were following DHS guidelines but then proceeded to close DMVs and/or driver training schools during larger lockdown phases.
- The difficulty of working directly with the state governments and facilitating transparency with these organizations. Ultimately, Don and team were able to communicate with the training schools themselves, carrier partners, and individual state associations to share the relevant data and information with these key personnel.
- Understanding the re-opening regulations and guidelines in a particular state and then getting the right information into the FMCSA hands or AMFAs hands or the state governments.
As the novel coronavirus crisis continues, states are learning more about the risks involved and have begun to slowly reopen their economies and businesses, including DMVs and driver training schools. Every state – and every city within these states – are under different guidelines and different regulations, which means no two reopening policies are the same, making it difficult for the CVTA to effectively reopen and support new driver trainees.
How COVID-19 will impact the driver shortage moving forward
In a normal year, the CDL trucking industry is consistently struggling with the ongoing driver shortage and the lack of newly trained drivers on the roads. In 2020, with so many CVTA training schools and driver resources unavailable to new drivers, this number is even lower.
The ATA has said that when the pandemic initially hit, it literally wiped out the driver shortage overnight. This was due to the freight volumes – there was less freight to be moved so there were less drivers needed. As this demand starts to rise again, however, the industry will start to see a ‘rise’ in the driver shortage.
When CVTA looked at this issue, they were analyzing the states that had shut down any avenue to train new CDL drivers. Since this time, a number of these states have re-opened, but the CVTA calculation takes into account the lasting impact of the pandemic, including how training schools are going to get back in action with social distancing and how they will be able to pivot to the ‘new normal’ of the COVID-19 era.
For reference, in a typical CDL driver training, there is a trainer in the driver seat of a truck with a student in the passenger seat, along with 2-3 additional students in the backseat learning from the driver at the wheel. In a post-COVID environment, all of these people cannot be in a truck together. Some states have mandated one-on-one training while others have started allowing a maximum of three people in the truck, with everyone following strict CDC regulations.
With this framework in mind, the CVTA assumed that reducing the ratio of trainers to students would reduce the number of newly trained drivers that were able to join the CDL driver workforce. Last year, around 300,000 commercial driver licenses were issued. Based on the data coming in for 2020, the CVTA assumed that, with these new training guidelines in place, only 60% of these 300,000 (around 180,000) CDLs would be fulfilled in 2020. As of August 2020, however, there have been some factors enter into the equation that have caused the CVTA to revise this number:
- The relatively low number of eligible states taking advantage of FMCSA-provided training waivers.
- Third-party skills test administrators (such as private contractors or colleges) to bypass state-administered CDL tests.
- The shift to an online-only appointment system at the DMV, which means it can take anywhere from 30 to 60 days to get a CDL learners permit once a driver has completed training.
Additional impact of the COVID-19 crisis
As the demand for freight has started to rebound to pre-pandemic numbers, there are even fewer drivers available than in the past. Plus, Don and other industry leaders are starting to look at the high probability of retiring during this uncertain time. Nearly 8% of all CDL drivers are 65 years and older, while nearly 28% are 55 years old and over. This is a problematic statistic for the industry as a whole since people over 60 are more at risk for COVID-19 and, as such, may not want to put themselves in a position to potentially get sick, which could lead to a large number of drivers retiring throughout 2020.
- If/when we get a vaccine, we will see the freight market take a huge upturn. This will be another problem because there will be way more freight than drivers to move it and there won’t be any new entrants to the driver pool to replace the drivers who have retired.
- The average age of a new driver is 35.
Fortunately, all is not doom and gloom in the CDL trucking industry. Now is a great time for new drivers to get introduced to the industry, and the demand is there and it’s not going away. When there is a COVID-19 vaccine available, the freight market will take a huge upturn. While more new drivers will need to fill this gap, this is an opportunity for the industry as a whole to be more flexible with their barriers to entry.
One example is the proposed legislation to lower the minimum age of CDL drivers to 18. The current regulation was developed in 1937 (!) and a lot of things have changed since then. Additionally, new technology makes it safer for younger drivers to get on the road.
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