What the industry doesn't need, many said, is for inexperienced trainers to be in charge of inexperienced drivers hauling freight right out of trucking school.
"Before somebody can be a trainer, they have to be through all four seasons," said 38-year trucking veteran and OOIDA Life Member Lee Strebel, during a public listening session convened by a panel of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration officials, including Administrator Anne Ferro and Deputy Administrator Larry Minor.
The session, held during the Mid-America Trucking Show, was part of FMCSA's outreach on driver training standards as the agency prepares a final rule as mandated in the highway bill MAP-21, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century.
"You have to give that student the big picture," Strebel said.
Jerry Fritts, Greg Petit, Jeana Hysell, Sam Mitchell, Sandi Talbott, D.J. Brown, Dick Pingle, Scott Grenerth and OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer took to the microphone in the afternoon session to talk about the need for trained drivers with experience to replace those leaving the industry.
Administrators acknowledged that many older, experienced drivers are leaving the industry, and that schools have varying level of standards for training new drivers.
Some trainers and carrier representatives at the session said the FMCSA should allow them to keep doing what they're doing – graduating thousands of CDL applicants and getting them to work quickly to fill the so-called "driver shortage." Numerous schools and companies were represented and obviously do not deserve to be lumped together as many had ideas that furthered the discussion about accreditation, cost and turnover.
Truckers, however, cautioned against two- to three-week training courses – some even shorter than that – that promise CDLs and a job. Many talked about colleagues or discussions around the truck stops that have thrown up red flags about training programs and promises of steady work for good pay.
"You can train anyone to go down the road," Spencer said. "You want to train a driver for when things go wrong, because things go wrong every day."
The experienced group offered up various suggestions, varying from three to five years experience behind the wheel before someone can become a trainer to train other drivers. Many said that a trainee needs six months at the wheel with an experienced trainer before being turned loose.
Drivers highlighted the recruitment strategies of carriers, the so-called "driver shortage" and the turnover rate in an effort to shed light on the need for commitment by the federal agency on tighter training standards.
"There is no oversight on the turnover rate," Sandi Talbott said. "As a veteran driver and as a taxpayer, I feel if the FMCSA truly cared about safety they would have a cap on how many students could be recruited by a training carrier per year."
An official representing a group of schools that graduate about 50,000 entry level drivers each year said they supply most of those drivers to a group of large carriers. The carriers with relationships with those schools own a combined 60,000 tractors. The numbers illuminate what truckers know firsthand in terms of driver turnover in the industry.
Fritts cited a recent study that said the LTL sector had only 9 percent turnover, far lower than the 100 percent turnover of some carriers despite the fact that the drivers are essentially doing the same work.
"New drivers are really being exploited by trucking company management," Fritts said.
The panel asked about simulators as a training tool. Brown and Grenerth said that while simulators can teach certain things, there's no substitute for real-world conditions, including weather, traffic, hours of service, separation from family and other stresses.
"Getting a CDL is not being an experienced driver," Grenerth said.
"I don't think anything is going to teach me what that road is going to teach me," said Brown.
The FMCSA intends to publish a rule on entry level driver training standards in the near future, as per the mandate. Administrators said they were grateful for the input from experienced drivers on the issue.