Truck driving school tries to get drivers on the road amid a trucker shortage
“I’m gonna teach them how to do a little bit of upshifting today,” Andre Wesson said as he settled in behind the steering wheel.
Wesson is the driving instructor at United Truck Driving School in Mission Valley. A year ago this job wasn’t in Wesson’s plans, but then the pandemic hit and he saw the need for his expertise.
“I thought I was gonna retire. I did retire. Then I saw this ad. Then I was thinking I have 20 years experience. I’m sitting here wasting time so I go, 'Man, why don't you go see and talk to them,'” he said.
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One of the things that is causing disruptions in the global supply chain is a severe shortage of truckers. Careers in trucking have been a path to the middle class for those who don’t have college degrees. But, it is a grueling job that doesn’t attract many younger workers.
Now a wave of retirements is washing over the industry, leaving firms in desperate straits. According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the industry is short 80,000 drivers. That number is expected to double by 2030 if major progress isn't made.
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Phillip Harris is also a retired trucker. He’s now the admission’s counselor at United. He said it’s a shortage that has accumulated over the years, but the pandemic has made the situation worse.
“When COVID came out the guys that were going to retire in three to four years said, 'Hey, we’re done,'" said Harris. "Then DMVs were closed so they weren't able to license new drivers which takes six to seven months to get the good training.”
The need for drivers has never been greater — the ATA estimates that 72% of the nation’s freight gets moved by truckers.
"We have been posting everywhere,” said Roberto Rodriguez, the owner of Premium Freight Corporation in Otay Mesa.
From billboards, to craigslist, to recruiting at diesel gas stations, Rodriguez said he’s tried every avenue to look for new hires.
“Down here in San Diego, in California especially, we don't have enough drivers. The drivers that already had their permits and licenses are working for big companies and they are paying a lot better wages than other companies. They are not leaving their companies to go work for somebody else.”Philip Harris, United Truck Driving School
“Down here in San Diego, in California especially, we don't have enough drivers. The drivers that already had their permits and licenses are working for big companies and they are paying a lot better wages than other companies. They are not leaving their companies to go work for somebody else,” he said.
He’s increased pay. But as he raises the bar, other companies do the same.
“Pay is going up. We have one major company that was playing in the $20 range and now they're paying their class A drivers $25 an hour,” Gary Smith said.
Gary Smith is the placement instructor for United Truck Driving School. He said companies are now willing to hire drivers with no experience, as long as they have a license. That used to be unheard of.
Rodriguez of Premium Freight Corporation said he can’t be choosy. Right now he has about 1,000 trailers on his lot waiting to be picked up. The company is now looking to Mexico for help.
“We have been working with a lot of lawyers to verify if they can help us with a process to get Mexican drivers to work down here,” Rodriguez said.
“We have been working with a lot of lawyers to verify if they can help us with a process to get Mexican drivers to work down here.”Roberto Rodriguez, Premium Freight Corporation
As companies scramble to fill driver seats, United Trucking School is doing its part to fill the need.
“We take them from ground zero and teach them all the skills and knowledge in order to become professional truck drivers,” United instructor Wesson said.
During the four week course students earn their class A and B commercial driving license and are helped with job placement.
The news of the driver shortage and higher pay appears to be having an effect. For the first time ever, United has a waitlist of students looking to join the program. And applicants are coming from diverse backgrounds.
“We’ve been inundated by students. We’re booked out till January,” Harris said.
Theron Gray is currently enrolled in the program, but it’s not his first time getting his Commercial Driver's License (CDL). He left trucking a few years back when his daughter was born because he wanted to be home more. But with incentives increasing for drivers, he’s ready to hit the road again.
“There is a lot of work available right now for truck drivers. A lot of people are going into other careers that are more corporate white collar and leaving the blue collar jobs behind, and these companies need bodies in the seats,” Gray said.
Yet, the trucker lifestyle isn't for everyone. Harris said he’s very blunt with students who are looking to enroll.
“We don't get to see our families a lot. We’re on the road a lot. Most truckers, they only see their family 12 days out of the year,” he said.
“I’m going to be honest with you, You can. Your shifting is getting really good. All that is coming through ... muscle memory,” Wesson said to one of his students as they practiced shifting gears.
Wesson reflects on the state of the trucking industry. He’s grateful he gets to contribute to teaching the next generation of drivers.
“I think we can get there together. Keep America moving so to speak. Cause right now we’re backed up and it’s bad,” Wesson said.
This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.