OPINION: Our Economy Is Rolling. It’s Time To Thank America’s Truckers

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Chris Spear President and CEO, American Trucking Associations
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After a decade of slow and tepid recovery, our economy today is finally revving its engine once again. Indicators across the dashboard are lighting up and pointing in a positive direction. Robust GDP growth, record-low unemployment, higher wages, and consumer confidence all signal an economy that is fundamentally strong and poised for further growth.

While there are many contributors to this success story, there is one group of professionals carrying our economy forward in real time. They are America’s truck drivers.

National Truck Driver Appreciation Week, September 9-15, is a time for us to salute the men and women who work hard year-round in one of the most demanding and essential jobs in our economy. From the food we eat to the clothing on our backs to the household items that furnish our homes; virtually everything that U.S. consumers buy has spent time on a truck.

And today, in an age where one-click delivery has become the norm, trucks and the professionals who drive them are in higher demand than ever before. More than 70 percent of domestic freight is carried by truck – totaling more than 10.42 billion tons annually. In his statement released this week, President Trump noted, “America depends on our trucking industry, and it continues to be a major contributor to our country’s workforce and infrastructure.”

But with this surplus of positive economic news comes critical challenge that grows more severe by the day: There aren’t enough qualified truck drivers available to meet the demands of our growing economy.

Our data reveals the industry is short 51,000 drivers today — and if current trends hold, that number could grow to 175,000 by 2026. Estimates show that in the next decade the trucking industry will need to recruit 890,000 new drivers just to keep pace with the growing need for freight transportation.

This market shortage has serious consequences that extend far beyond trucking. If left unaddressed, our nation’s driver shortage threatens to pump the brakes on the economy’s forward momentum, hiking transportation costs, consumer wallets and the efficient movement of everything purchased in-store and online.

That is why we in the trucking industry are stepping forward to find solutions to this challenge. Many Americans are unaware that truck driving can lead to a rewarding career path with stable, family income — earning well above the national average.

The median salary for a truckload driver working a national, irregular route is more than $53,000 – an increase of 15 percent since 2013. A private fleet driver saw pay rise to more than $86,000 over that same period. That is made more appealing when considering that the prerequisites of the job don’t entail the debt burden associated with four-year college degrees.

If recruiting young talent remains the biggest obstacle in this challenge, then policymakers in Washington have a vital role to play in reaching a solution. A good start for Congress would be to expand the available driver labor pool by empowering 18-21 year-olds to drive across state lines.

Current law already permits them to operate tractor-trailers in 48 states, but it prohibits them from driving interstate commerce. As a result, truck driver candidates under 21are forced to choose different career paths or take on college debt.

A bill introduced in Congress called the DRIVE Safe Act would remove the single biggest regulatory barrier underlying the truck driver shortage by creating an apprenticeship program that trains 18-21-year-olds to drive trucks interstate. It fixes that loophole in existing rules that permits a driver under 21 to take an eight-or-more hour drive across a long state like Florida or Tennessee but prohibits her from taking a short ten-mile trip between neighboring states.

The bill would also further strengthen safety laws by requiring candidates to undergo a rigorous 400-hour training program — complete with two stringent probationary periods and specific performance benchmarks, all while accompanied in the cab by an experienced driver. Notably, these safeguards are in addition to the current training and testing that is first required to obtain a commercial driver’s license, since the apprenticeship program would only be available to CDL holders.

If we can send young talent off overseas to fight for our freedom, then we can train them to drive across state lines.

In an age of mass consumption and instant gratification, it is far too easy to take our good fortune for granted. National Truck Driver Appreciation Week serves to remind us that the goods we buy, use and rely on throughout our daily lives would not be ours to have if not for truckers.

Our high standard of living is a miracle made possible by their dedicated service and sacrifice. Congress can show its appreciation by helping clear the unnecessary barriers so that the next generation of drivers can keep moving America forward.

Chris Spear is President and CEO of American Trucking Associations

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.