Apprenticeship programs are fast becoming a favored model for getting more people in the industry.

 

By Stephen Bennett

Last December, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Labor launched a Trucking Action Plan to increase the supply of truck drivers. The agencies said they aimed to do this by “creating new pathways into the profession,” and “cutting red tape” to expand training, primarily through Registered Apprenticeship Programs.

During the span of the action plan, which administration officials referred to as “a 90-day sprint,” more than 100 trucking firms launched Registered Apprenticeship Programs, including Groendyke Transport and Carbon Express. Executives of both tank truck carriers, along with Ellen Voie, president of Women in Trucking, attended a White House event on April 4 marking the conclusion of the Trucking Action Plan, but the effort to promote and launch registered apprenticeship programs continues as strong as ever, a Department of Labor spokesperson emphasized in a conversation after the White House event. Another 75 trucking firms are developing apprenticeship programs, the DOL spokesperson said.

Holly McCormick, vice president, Talent Office, Groendyke Transport, based in Enid, Oklahoma, said transporters of petroleum products have a special interest in heightening awareness and recognition of the role of drivers.

Hauling tank trucks is unlike any other segment of the trucking industry, McCormick said.

“It requires a special skill set that enhances and elevates the professional job of truck driving. By signing up [as a Registered Apprenticeship Program] we can get access to individuals that do not yet have this skill,” McCormick said. “Additionally, we’re able to look at transitioning veterans that may already have much of this skill set.”

Formal apprenticeships are fast becoming a favored model for training people to drive trucks, as the trucking industry, trade groups and the U.S.  Department of Labor work together to shore up depleted driver ranks.

Registered apprenticeship programs work, the DOL spokesperson said, because apprentices are employees from the start of the process. Employers are hiring, training and paying apprentices; as apprentices build more skills, they earn wage increases. For these reasons apprentices are more likely to stay in driving jobs, the spokesperson said.

In occupations such as operating petroleum tank trucks, the necessary specialized education and training for that can be provided through the apprenticeship program, the DOL spokesperson noted.

FASTPORT, a company contracted by the Department of Labor, helps carriers set up apprenticeship programs and register their programs with the Department, which can make both the carriers and apprentices eligible to receive certain benefits.

The Labor Department provided federal funds to FASTPORT, among other partners, to work with employers to start apprenticeship programs.

FASTPORT provides consulting support free of cost to employers who want to start apprenticeship programs. It is also working with industry associations and groups, including the National Tank Truck Carriers and Women in Trucking.

Dave Harrison, executive director, ​workforce development and government relations for FASTPORT, pointed out that among benefits available to registered apprentices are housing allowances for eligible veterans transitioning to truck driving careers.

Registering an apprenticeship program need not be a complicated, lengthy process, according to Harrison.

“Usually in about thirty minutes I can outline a path that will get a company to a registered apprenticeship just as fast as they want to,” Harrison said. Some employers can be onboarded into the Registered Apprenticeship Program in 48 hours, he said. “Some companies dive right in, other companies take months,” Harrison said.

FASTPORT works with a wide range of associations that agree to sponsor apprenticeship programs for their members.

The National Association of Publicly Funded Truck Driving Schools, S.H.E. Trucking, the Minority Professional Truckers Association, The North American Punjabi Trucking Association, and The Trucking Alliance are current sponsors, and the American Trucking Associations earlier this year signed an agreement with the Department of Labor to become a registered apprenticeship sponsor, with FASTPORT administering the program for participating companies in that group.

The trucking industry is short more than 80,000 drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations. (Diesel technicians are also in high demand and short supply, the group noted.) Apprenticeships can help fill that gap by combining paid, on-the-job training with instruction to prepare new drivers and technicians, ATA said.

“This is truly an earn-while-you-learn program,” ATA President and CEO Chris Spear said. “But it’s more than just a paycheck for apprentices: by participating in a registered program, they are eligible for things like child care, housing allowances, and other support as they start down this new career path.”

Under the apprenticeship program, ATA’s members will need to meet certain training and compensation standards as they bring in new drivers for a two-year apprenticeship that will provide graduated wages as drivers develop and expand their skills, the group said.

A version of the RAP is currently in development with the National Tank Truck Carriers, Harrison said. The apprenticeship model that most associations and trade groups have adopted for their members is a two-year competency-based program, Harrison said. “That doesn’t mean it has to take two years.”

The curriculum is an employer’s curriculum, and employers, as operators of the competency-based programs, determine “who or who is not qualified, safe and productive,” Harrison said.

Literature on the program, disseminated by FASTPORT, states: “Employers define skill requirements, recruit apprentices, provide on-the-job training, select mentors, pay progressive wages as skills increase, and validate related instruction in-house or in partnership with training providers.”

Harrison said, “The reality is that less than ten percent of the carriers in the nation actually train people with little or no experience.”

Apprentice drivers may come from other industries, looking for an opportunity in a sector where there are jobs that can provide family-sustaining wages, the DOL spokesperson said. There is still a lot of work to be done to make trucking an accessible, safe and attractive job for women, the spokesperson acknowledged. There is opportunity for tank truck drivers to be home nightly, which is a strong draw, the spokesperson noted.

Ellen Voie, president of Women in Trucking, said, “A lot of times women have trouble getting the tuition and the funding” they need for training. “We have a scholarship foundation,” Voie said. “Our scholarships are a thousand dollars per person.” She added, “Drivers will have their whole training paid under this apprenticeship program, which is great.”

The trucking industry partnered with veterans’ organizations to launch “Task Force Movement: Life-Cycle Pathways for Veterans and Military into Trucking,” chaired by former Congressman and veteran Patrick Murphy, to support the recruitment and retention of veterans and military family members. The new task force is meant to create more seamless pathways that recognize skills that people already have—particularly important for ensuring access to CDLs, the DOL spokesperson noted. That includes taking into account practical, concrete experience, such as the types of trucks apprentices drove while they were in the service. That experience can be especially significant in the fuel tank industry, said the DOL spokesperson.

Another benefit of apprenticeship programs is that job seekers who visit American Job Centers see the programs as offering high-quality training that leads to jobs. The DOL supports American Job Centers, which are designed to provide a full range of assistance to job seekers “under one roof.” Established under the Workforce Investment Act, the centers offer training referrals, career counseling, job listings, and similar employment-related services.

Steve Rush, founder and CEO of Carbon Express, Wharton, N.J., which hauls motor oil and other products, has a Registered Apprenticeship Program at his company. Rush said that there’s another step he’s looking to government for, to complement registered apprenticeships. “To complete the play, the government has to declare driving a truck a specific skill,” Rush said. He also criticized the absence of overtime pay for many drivers. Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, some truck drivers are exempt from overtime. “That is terrible,” Rush said. “Now, I’m an owner and I’m telling you that’s terrible. That’s demoralizing.” Rush added, “The country can’t run without you. [The country] can’t win a war without the truck driver. And yet, he’s not eligible for overtime. That’s wrong.”

McCormick of Groendyke Transport is leading an effort to win formal federal recognition of the job of tank truck driving. “As head of the Workforce Committee for National Tank Truck Carriers, I’ve worked with my committee to submit a new occupation, specific to tank trucks, to the Department of Labor,” McCormick said.

“While tank trucks represent only 6% of the industry, we haul a third of the nation’s tonnage,” she said. Tank truck drivers are responsible for loading and unloading, McCormick added.

“Our drivers require a completely different skill set, it’s more customer/shipper interaction, more hands-on loading/unloading, understanding products and ‘slosh’. Imagine hauling a product that moves when you hit the brakes. It’s hard to loop our segment into ‘all trucking.’

“Our safety standards are much higher than that of other segments of trucking,” McCormick continued. “Our insurance providers would agree. Simply in the nature of what we’re hauling we have to be” following specialized safety standards, McCormick said. “And we can prove that we are.”

McCormick said that creating a DOL occupation for such tank truck drivers as Groendyke’s “creates a streamlined way to get drivers into our training programs. It differentiates us from other segments and allows us to market ourselves as such, creating our jobs as the elite career destination for truck drivers. We’re in a full-out war for talent and drivers, and we want to distinguish ourselves” as, among other things, “a higher-paying segment of the industry.”

“Not to mention,” McCormick said, “if it weren’t for the diesel fuel that we haul, no other truck could keep running.”

 

For more on federally recognized apprenticeships, visit www.apprenticeship.gov.