Guest Op-Ed: Why Workforce Development Should Be Included in Freight Transportation Plans

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States’ supply chain system has been strained from significant demand. While some responsibility is on the less-costly, just-in-time-inventory supply chain that failed under the stress of panic buying from the early days of the COVID pandemic, there also is the issue of the insufficient transportation workforce available to move all of these goods in response to high demand.

Truck drivers, for example, are aging out of the workforce and there is not a generation of new drivers to replace them. This is the case at seaports and railroads as well. At the same time, improvements in vehicle technologies, such as automation and electrification, are making truck driving a more complex job across all modes, with more diverse skills required than previously needed.

The Need for State Action

In order to attract and retain future supply chain and freight workers, states must do more to incorporate workforce development as a part of freight transportation planning. From the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) to the 2021 Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act (IIJA), planning for freight has evolved from a consideration to a requirement. Planning now includes commodities, freight-generating facilities, corridors, forecasts, and land use scenarios. Most recently, issues of equity, resilience, and climate are part of freight planning. Why not discuss the workforce and its impacts?

Many state freight plans (including Texas, Missouri, and Georgia) already assess the economic impact of freight in their state. A natural next step is to discuss workforce coordination efforts, too. This should not necessitate federal rulemaking, as public and private sector partnerships can tailor policies that are relevant to their region or state. A potential model from the healthcare industry that could be used for a freight workforce policy framework includes the six institutional grant programs that were included in the American Rescue Plan to build healthcare workforce resiliency, teaching center planning and development, and graduate medical education.

Addressing Innovation

The National Freight Strategic Plan released in September 2020 established three goals: safety, infrastructure, and innovation. Under innovation, the goal specifies its aim to “prepare for the future by supporting the development of data, technologies, and workforce capabilities that improve freight system performance.” The objective relates employment in the industry with data and technology, with clear direction: “Strengthen workforce professional capacity.” A multilayered approach is crucial to meeting these goals and objectives.  IIJA recognizes this importance in Section 13007 whereby the states are granted greater flexibility to address workforce development through coordination and partnership in industry and relevant government agencies, such as those specializing in labor and education.

While the freight network includes other modes (air, pipeline, marine, and rail), trucks make up more than 63 percent of all goods movement. Add in emerging technologies such as electric or hydrogen trucks, truck platooning, and automation, and the economic impacts are enormous. We need a knowledgeable workforce in place.

Autonomous trucks will not completely replace the driver, as drivers are still needed to navigate urban spaces, re-fuel, and unload. One example is TuSimple, an autonomous freight vehicle technology company. The firm claims to have reduced fuel savings by 13 percent, but operational costs are still a financial challenge to address safety. Even TuSimple utilizes a truck driver, a software engineer, and still needs to be refueled by a human. What if those three roles were all one person?

Potential Workforce Development Models

The trucking industry must recruit more truck drivers across demographics, including young drivers, women, and veterans. The mechanisms to do this range from increased pay, improved working conditions, and flexible hours to accommodate work-life balance for a larger talent pool. Achieving this goal requires a re-imagining of education.

Most supply chain education programs are housed in business schools, but there are better ways to market freight transportation careers. Community colleges often offer truck driving programs in one department and supply chain programs in another. Current commercial driver’s license requirements are not technology based. However, many programs have begun enacting promising changes that could serve as a useful model for other institutions.

Michigan Works Southeast is a non-profit organization that connects employers and job seekers, and its website highlights the need for skills in the industry related to autonomous vehicles (AVs). Potential careers with relevance to AVs range from electrical engineering to natural sciences. Kansas City, the city with the most interstate miles per capita has an educational program called Prep KC that exposes students at all levels to the supply chain industry. The bi-state program between Kansas and Missouri reaches nearly 70,000 students in the elementary, middle, and high school grades.

State DOTs have led other promising initiatives. The Vermont Department of Transportation (VTrans) offers up to $1,500 to women, minorities, or disadvantaged persons to obtain a CDL, and many motor carriers are offering attractive signing bonuses and other incentives to help fill open positions. The Mississippi Department of Transportation started a program to offer transit driver license training for those experiencing homelessness as both a sustainable path to employment and housing, as well as alleviating the state’s driver shortage.

The Road Ahead

The continued development of automation and associated technology will reduce the total amount of jobs needed and increase demand for more skilled occupations like technicians and analysts. As the required education and caliber of truck driving continue to evolve, truck driving jobs can be marketed to a broader range of potential drivers. This will require a will to think creatively and deploy unique solutions. These include:

  • Agreeing on the skills needed at multiple levels of freight transportation
  • Infusing technology training into commercial driver’s licensing
  • Marketing the work in freight transportation to young people
  • Eliminating the age requirement for interstate commercial vehicles
  • Investing federal funds in local and state education programs
  • Continuing to build on partnerships between the public and private sectors

The disruption of the pandemic taught us how dependent we are on the delivery of goods. Now we have the opportunity to do things differently, so our trucking workforce has the education to take us into the future. As a T-shirt at a truck stop says, without truckers we are “homeless, hungry, and naked.”

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation. 

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