Central Texas driving schools try to keep up during national truck driver shortage

Business

PFLUGERVILLE, Texas (KXAN) — We’re starting to see the impact of the pandemic on a truck drivers.

The Texas Trucking Association said 82.1% of Texas communities depend exclusively on trucks to move their goods.

“They are the guys that get it to all the different entities, whether it be a gas station, grocery store, box chain stores — that’s how this stuff all gets there,” said Eldon Featherston, operations manager at Community Truck Driving School in Round Rock and Pflugerville.

Right now, he said there are about 315,000 openings across the country, and companies are calling him for his graduates.

“I’ve had calls from New York City, I’ve had calls from Florida, Idaho, Washington State…” said Featherston.

He adds that 15 to 20 local companies have also called him for employees.

“A lot of those companies have anywhere from 25 to 50% increase in their bonus just to have someone sign up and work for that company,” he said.

According to the American Transportation Research Institute, the industry had already been experiencing a truck driver shortage for four consecutive years in 2020.

The pandemic made that worse — the American Trucking Associations reports turnover worsened as many older drivers retired or left the industry over COVID-19-related health concerns.

State licensing agencies were also shut down, helping to create a backlog.

“We had people leaving the business, but there was nobody coming back in due to all these schools across the United States closed,” Featherston said.

He said Texas was lucky, since driving schools were allowed to stay open. Still, they had to cap classes due to COVID-19 safety protocols and are still operating at limited capacity.

“When you have schools that can only do 15, 20 people at a time — maximum, per month — it takes a lot of schools to fill up 300,000 positions,” he said.

Featherston said certain positions like tanker drivers, which transport fuel, are harder to secure.

“They have to have a clean driving record, they have to have a clean criminal record, and a lot of these companies, they actually require that you have at least two to three years over the road,” he said, meaning his students wouldn’t qualify to fill many of those positions for another few years.

Student Edwardo Sanchez sees it as a sort of job security in an industry he didn’t see himself in at first.

“Did 15 years in the military — four in the Marines, then 11 in the Army,” he said.

After Sanchez medically retired, his brother-in-law offered him a job with one big requirement.

“I can’t drive until I get my license,” he said.

Featherston said he has a huge waitlist for the school, most of them younger than usual.

“They tried to find a job that was going to be stable and basically what they called pandemic-proof,” he said.

But he said the backlog is so large a more long-term solution is needed, like loosening requirements for tankers including years of driving experience.

“The only scenario that we can actually see where this will actually start filling up faster, is they’re going to have to start relaxing some of those requirements — not get rid of those requirements,” Featherston said.

The Texas Trucking Association is also advocating for apprenticeship programs to help more young adults enter and stay in the industry.

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