Robert Dolan, a Pennsylvania-based trucker for XPO Logistics, has been a champion driver for nearly 30 years, and one of his passions is encouraging young people who may form the next generation of transportation workers.
Dolan is competing in the National Truck Driving Championships, which will be held in Columbus, Ohio, from Aug. 15-18. This will be the 14th time in his decadeslong career that he has competed at NTDC. He won the Grand Champion prize at the national competition in 1990 and placed first in the straight truck class at the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association’s truck driving rodeo June 9.
Dolan’s work as president of PMTA’s Lehigh Valley chapter extends to people who are just starting their careers. Every year for the past six years, the chapter grants a scholarship to a young person interested in working in the transportation industry. Dolan said this year’s grant recipient is on track to become a diesel mechanic. One past winner became a truck dealer.
Young people are an important demographic that has the potential to offset the driver shortage, according to Dolan. American Trucking Associations last year reported the shortage at more than 50,000 drivers. However, Dolan said federal law, which dictates that a truck driver cannot haul a load across state lines until the age of 21, can hamper recruitment efforts.
“Our industry is hindered because truck drivers need to be 21 to run interstate commerce,” Dolan said. “Trying to get that person involved in transportation is sometimes a challenge.”
Dolan identified the three-year period after high school as a formative time and said the interstate trucking business sometimes loses potential workers to other fields, such as contracting or electrical work. He also pointed out that an 18-year-old driver based in Pennsylvania would be allowed to trek 370 miles across the state from Allentown to Erie but would prohibited from driving 30 miles from Allentown into New Jersey.
Who: Winners from nine categories at the state level advance to the national competition, with a grand champion crowned
What: Contestants are judged on a written examination and their driving skills
When: Aug. 15-18
Where: Columbus, Ohio
Intensifying the shortage crisis is the fact that trucking is an industry made up of slightly older people. According to surveys by ATA, the average driver age in the for-hire over-the-road truckload industry is 49.
The chapter’s scholarship recipient must have a relative, either immediate or extended, who belongs to PMTA. For example, one recipient’s grandfather worked for a PMTA member company.
The chapter has awarded more than $20,000 to college students pursuing careers in the transportation industry. The annual monetary award depends on how many recipients there are. Dolan said usually there are one or two recipients a year, but he cited one year in which there were three.
To raise funds for the scholarship, the chapter hosts a Truck Driving Competition TuneUp Drive in late April, which doubles as a way for Pennsylvania drivers to hone their skills preceding the state and national championships.
“We have an aging workforce. [We’re] up against a lot of obstacles,” Dolan said. “We want to promote our industry, and this is one way we can go out there and help ourselves and keep our industry strong.”
Dolan said his mantra going into the national championships is “practice, practice, practice.” Fellow Pennsylvanian Ron Emenheiser, a Walmart driver who won Grand Champion at NTDC in 2015, encouraged Dolan — and all the drivers — to relax and enjoy the competition.
Emenheiser attended NTDC in 2015 by surprise. He placed second in the sleeper berth class at PMTA’s championship and was called to attend the national competition two weeks before the event because the driver who placed first was disqualified.
“Anybody’s capable of winning. It’s anybody’s game,” Emenheiser said. “It’s a great experience. It’s a great atmosphere. It’s a great fellowship of people.”