Karen Messier checked her mirrors, shifted into reverse and eased off on the white 2006 Freightliner’s clutch.
With Kirkwood Community College driving instructor Roger Smith walking alongside the tandem axle semi — attached to a 53-feet-long trailer hauling a simulated 15,000-pound load — Messier maneuvered the massive rig delicately through a pattern of orange parking cones.
The 47-year-old New Orleans native is one of eight students in Kirkwood’s four-week truck driving course trying to enter an industry starved for professional commercial drivers.
“There’s just so many different career choices, and that’s what I love about it,” Messier said. “It’s all where your priorities are.”
In need of potential drivers like Messier, local employers such as CRST International and Don Hummer Trucking supply Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with equipment and often send recruiters to the course’s later sessions in search of prospective employees.
CRST ranks No. 24 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.
Much of the nation’s truck driver shortage is fueled by the retirement of veteran drivers, coupled with a growing transportation industry. But at the same time, programs such as Kirkwood’s also struggle to find young new talent to meet industry needs.
“We don’t have students banging on our doors as fast as we have employers banging on our doors, so we’re doing everything we can to recruit to get students in here to fill the needs of our employers,” said Amy Lasack, Kirkwood’s senior director of corporate training. “I would say if you have a clean driving history, if you’re safe in the training we have here, then you’re pretty much guaranteed a job.”
In 2014, the nation’s trucking industry was short about 38,000 drivers, according to a 2015 truck driving shortage analysis conducted by American Trucking Associations.
That drought was expected to reach nearly 48,000 by the close of 2015 and, if the trend holds, the shortage would reach almost 175,000 by 2024.
The report stated the trucking industry would need to hire an average of 89,000 new drivers per year over the next decade to address the shortage.
The biggest factor is a workforce reaching retirement age. The median age of over-the-road truck drivers is 49, while the median for all U.S. workers is 42.
Meanwhile, the median age of private fleet drivers is 52 years old.
“The reality is, right now, there’s more drivers exiting than there are drivers entering,” said Brenda Neville, president and chief executive officer of the Iowa Motor Trucking Association, or IMTA.
While retiring drivers account for about 45% of the shortage, not far behind are added job opportunities to handle industry growth, which accounts for 33% of the shortage, according to ATA's report.
“I think every trucking company in the country would hire as many drivers that showed up on any given time, assuming they’re capable and safe and meet the requirements,” said Chris Hummer, president of Don Hummer’s Trucking in Oxford. “I think it has to be about casting a wider net and attracting as many people to the industry as we can.”
ATA's report also lists some possible changes to the industry that could help attract more drivers, such as pay increases, allowing more at-home time or improving the driver image.
While many perceive the job as days on the road, and some positions still include long hours, a growing network of distribution centers has reduced the distance many truck drivers now travel, according to the report.
Neville said one barrier to filling the shortage is due to a federal rule that prohibits commercial drivers under 21 years old from crossing state lines.
“There are 18-year-old drivers that are very confident and would be more than able to drive across state lines and the federal rule is not allowing them to do that,” Neville said.
A new study by the American Transport Research Institute, which conducts transportation-related research and represents more than 35,000 motor carriers across the country, is looking into the untapped workforce of 18- to 20-year-old drivers.
Rebecca Brewster, president and chief operating officer of the ATRI, said the study will identify the qualities and characteristics of professional veteran drivers who are around 35 to 40 years old.
Then Brewster plans to identify 18- to 20-year-old drivers with similar traits to place into a pilot program that would see them driving across state lines. If successful, the program could expand, she said.
“We miss folks who are coming out of high school who are looking for a driving career, but are dissuaded because they can’t drive outside the state they are in,” Brewster said. “I think that we would hope to demonstrate that this is a successful tool of finding who among that population of 18 to 20 year olds would be appropriate to put into that pilot test.”
Neville said the program could help build a case for adjusting the federal government’s age requirements for drivers crossing state lines.
In addition to younger drivers, the large majority of the nation’s truck drivers are men.
While women make up 47% of the U.S. workforce, they comprise just 6% of all truck drivers, according to ATA's report.
Back at Kirkwood, Chris Kula, transportation business liaison with the college’s Continuing Education Training Center, said the school’s driving program — which is certified by the Professional Truck Driver Institute — averages at least six students per four-week class. That's about between 75 to 90 students per year.
The average student is a mid-40s male, but the school is beginning to see more women drivers such as Karen Messier.
Kula, who last fall took Kirkwood’s four-week course, said the class is so much more than just learning to drive a big truck.
“I think the misconception I had was that this is just driving a truck,” Kula said. “It’s definitely a profession and a skill that is learned, and you have to be good at it.”
The course teaches driving skills, but also involves learning how to manage finances and eat healthy foods while spending days or weeks on the road.
In addition to trying to attract younger drivers and more women to the field, Kirkwood, this spring, launched its first four-week English-as-a-second-language class that acts as a preview course to the school’s truck driving program.
Kula said the course, which currently has seven students, likely will be available about four times a year, depending on demand.
But while employers and teachers try to attract more student drivers into the field, IMTA’s Neville said efforts also need to be made to simply redefine how the public views the American truck driver.
While every motorist remembers that one truck that cut them off in traffic, Neville said the industry should showcase successes and the importance of the industry.
“We have got to do a better job of just really elevating the importance of the industry and the value of the professional driver,” Neville said. “Everything that everybody gets is because of a truck driver.”