Can Accessibility Help Tackle the Industry’s Driver Gap?

By Diego Larrea-Puemape

The driver shortage isn’t new. The need to fill idle trucks has dominated industry discussions, especially in the heavy building materials space. Beyond an aging workforce, the industry now competes against simpler routes and more predictable work schedules offered by small parcels and food delivery jobs. The high demand for drivers won’t settle tomorrow. But by positioning driving opportunities to become more accessible, filling the industry’s worker gap can start with ensuring a person of any background can emerge as an expert driver.

Opening opportunities to demographics outside of the traditional truck driver workforce could help reveal just how promising this line of work can be. Despite the driver shortage, according to the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA) 2022 Mixer Driver Recruitment & Retention Survey, most truck drivers like or love their job. However, in the same NRMCA survey, the organization found that the biggest hiring challenge for 71% of companies was a sparse talent pool. So, what’s preventing new recruits from signing up?

For many, it could be accessibility. The skills and certifications of a truck driver come at a price not every candidate can afford. However, more companies are recognizing how the cost of a CDL license and other training can turn away industry newcomers. Some have invested in internal schools that fast-track recruits toward commercial driving. Instead of offering sign-on bonuses, other companies will pay portions – or all of – a CDL certification. Some have also donated vehicles and equipment so that students can enter the workforce better prepared. Colleges, like Tidewater Community College in Virginia, are also partnering with state governments to help fund affordable, short-term programs in transportation and logistics.

Over the course of their careers, veteran truck drivers have sharpened their skills to a tee. Through meticulous practice, estimating slump qualities and maneuvering in tight areas have become second nature. Expert truck drivers are the fiber of this industry. And for newcomers to promptly reach this level of expertise, we must lean on experienced drivers while developing effective training. Through these veteran drivers, we are learning how to simplify some of the most challenging and tedious parts of transporting heavy building materials.

Training courses that leverage technology can be instrumental in this knowledge transfer. Introducing gamification can boost engagement and overall knowledge retention. Implementing language modules can support those who know English as a second or third language. Applying virtual reality would give students a better idea of what to expect on the job. The opportunities are ample. The easier it is for someone to learn what it takes to be successful, the easier it is for them to be successful.

And with effective technology, training programs become more intuitive. While we hone and teach the expertise of veteran drivers, we must consider the learning curve taken on by a newcomer. New drivers may come from a construction background, or perhaps other roles like operating a school bus. But what about candidates who have never commercially driven? What about candidates who are just entering the workforce? No matter the amount of prior knowledge a new driver brings, evening the starting line for everyone ensures achievable training.

Widening the driver talent pool means opening up opportunities to those who may not have had them before. For previously incarcerated people, commercial driving could provide many with stable careers as they re-enter the workforce. Federal prisons in six U.S. states (Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas) foster CDL training programs for inmates. Other states, like Connecticut, have made the CDL test available for incarcerated people with certain offenses.

While it’s common for released prisoners to commit a new crime (almost 68% of former prisoners are arrested within three years, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics), research also demonstrates that people employed after their release are less likely to return to prison. Before Connecticut unanimously voted in favor of its post-release CDL program, The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving testified that preparing inmates for success has a great impact on reducing recidivism.

Effective training for everyone can better prepare recruits for prosperous truck driving careers, but there are additional challenges ahead that can hinder the chances of job retention. Concrete mixer drivers, for example, have indicated that off-road driving, tricky concrete pours, and keeping up with concrete properties have made the job less appealing. These challenges may have had a factor in almost 40% of new full-time drivers quitting the same year they were hired, according to a 2021 NRMCA survey. Widening the driver talent pool is not the only undertaking at hand. Ensuring drivers have access to resources that offset these challenges is equally important.

Luckily, both operational and technological solutions are emerging. Adding concrete delivery technicians to company staff could ease a mixer driver’s responsibilities while creating a new career on-ramp. Augmented reality can provide real-time feedback to drivers about more technical aspects of the job. And leveraging data, additional feedback could increase engagement and recognition between a driver and management.

There are many factors contributing to the country’s driver shortage, but a focus on improving accessibility could turn things around. Whether it’s introducing the industry to under-represented demographics or ensuring modern training is available to recruits, investing in accessibility has carved a path toward attractive truck driving careers.

Diego Larrea-Puemape is a global product manager for Command-Alkon.

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