‘This is our moment’: How fleets can engage with rebooted driver training programs to help bolster the new entrant pipeline

Truck driving schools and CDL training programs have come back in full force over the past two years since pandemic-related protocols in the spring of 2020 forced many schools and training facilities to pause operations.

The good news is that enrollment at CDL programs and driving schools has soared in recent months, with local news outlets across the country reporting record numbers of enrollment at area community colleges and private training programs.

The bad news, however, is that such training programs are facing a shortage of their own: A dearth of trainers, as many experienced instructors returned to the road as driver pay climbed over the past 18 months and many others retired or left for work in other industries.

Now with CDL programs rebooted and interest in CDL programs swelling, training providers are grappling with how to serve this growing interest in CDL training amid a tight market for qualified instructors. And they’re looking to motor carriers to build two-way streets with training providers to help bridge the gap in needed experienced drivers to instruct trainees.

“Our members have felt the same strains that the larger trucking industry has faced,” says Bailey Wood, president and CEO of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association, whose members are made up of private CDL programs and driving schools. “Ultra-low unemployment is driving everybody to try new things and do new things” in their careers, he said, including those who’d previously worked as instructors and trainers within CDL programs. And as the demand for goods and freight service shot up over the past two years and put upward pressure on driver wages, he said, many instructors were drawn back into driving jobs and away from training work. Also, his member schools, like many other industries, saw a wave of retirements.

The issue also has been compounded by new federal regulations instituted this year, said Wood. The Entry-Level Driving Training rule, which took effect in February 2022, dictates new requirements of training programs, instructors, curriculum, and minimum standards for both classroom and behind-the-wheel training. Those requirements added another small layer of complexity to training schools’ operations amid the surging interest in CDL programs. 

Driver training programs obviously are a foundational part of the funnel in building trucking’s pipeline of new entrants, and they play an important role not only in the broader U.S. economy, says Wood, but in helping create great career opportunities for those entering. “I told my members in the fall: This is our moment. There’s been no other time in our generation that CDL schools have been better positioned to better the lives of millions of Americans. So we have a new sense of urgency and a new sense of focus” to meet the moment, he said.

Though community colleges and motor carriers (including both for-hire and private fleets) offer CDL training programs, most new entrant drivers receive instruction at private programs, said Wood. Some 60-70% of CDL holders enter the industry through a proprietary institution.

Thus, it’s incumbent upon motor carriers to engage with the programs within their respective hiring areas and nationally, says Wood, to create partnerships that that offer job placement programs for those new entrant CDL holders within regional fleets, but also for fleets to offer contracted training services by their own experienced drivers.

“It’s important to build those relationships,” he said. “The outplacement services are a big component, but trucking companies also have drivers with the expertise to be instructors and who already meet the federal regulations of the ELDT rule. The training institutions can easily take those drivers, fill out the necessary forms,” and have those drivers up and running as contracted trainers, he said.

Wood enoucrages fleets to “approach schools and start having those conversations,” so that they can help fleets build a pipeline of new entrant drivers – and fleets can help training programs find experienced drivers to help with instruction and training.

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