Among my most lasting early COVID memories are the reassuring sight of trucks hauling groceries and goods. It was spring 2020, when the nation was reeling from the emerging pandemic and the loss of 22 million jobs. Several months later, spirits rose as trucks were loaded with deliveries of new vaccines and precious hope. Millions of Americans were deeply moved by the efforts and sacrifice of the men and women behind the wheel.
The new infrastructure package includes a federal apprenticeship program to train thousands of truck drivers as young as 18. This initiative is designed to mitigate the labor challenges facing the trucking industry caused by illness, inflation, rising costs of fuel and parts, and regulatory hurdles, and is supported by the American Trucking Association. Whether or not you supported the infrastructure bill, we should all agree that government policy should support this essential industry. And, autonomous trucking technology is increasingly seeing greater acceptance, as it offers great potential to boost safety, save fuel, cut emissions and help solve truck drivers shortages.
Trucking is among America’s most severely regulated economic sectors and challenging professions. But it is certainly one of the most vital as truckers move 70 percent of freight in the U.S. In normal times it is a grueling job. And rarely more so than during those early months of the pandemic when states were scrambling to prevent COVID’s spread through measures such as closing rest areas that truckers need. In those early days, it was hard to find a bite to eat on the road.
There was mass clamor for faster replenishment of groceries, medical supplies, and resources that keep supply chains going. And so on March 13, 2020, for the first time since the law’s enactment in 1937, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued an Emergency Declaration allowing truckers to safely extend federally-restricted “hours of service” to enable transport of critical supplies. This action has been extended every few months ever since. The Department of Transportation issued hundreds of COVID-related regulatory relief measures during 2020 to facilitate transport. And starting in fall 2020, the department’s long-awaited initiative to provide all truckers more flexible hours of service regulations began being implemented.
Today, as Year Three of the pandemic begins, supply chain pressures persist because of continued COVID-related disruptions worldwide and increased consumer demand fueled in part by federal relief and stimulus. As we turn to 18 year-olds for support, the transportation sector has so far been unable to keep up with demand which contributes to shortages and an inflationary feedback loop. This is a political nightmare for an incumbent president and their party, as veterans of past inflationary surges can attest.
This administration is trying to respond with both a supply chain task force and a trucking action plan last year, the latter of which is led by the secretaries of Labor and Transportation (the two Cabinet posts I held). It will be a tough task, and we all hope they can demonstrate results soon to alleviate supply chain problems.
Making trucking a more attractive job in the short-term or as a long-term career is a tall order. For starters, maneuvering an 80,000-pound loaded rig in today’s traffic is not for the faint of heart. Long-haul trucking is tough as it can entail weeks or months away from home. Adding insult to injury, many truckers report that they are frequently hostage to hours-long unpaid waits to load and unload, something the administration plans to study. Truckers’ income is also being eroded by rising fuel prices, something the “Trucking Action Plan” is mum on. In California, home of the nation’s busiest and most backed-up ports, diesel has been running around five dollars a gallon. Those of us who wince at filling up our car’s gas tank can hardly imagine paying for a 200-300 gallon fill-up and then watching the fuel gauge drain at 6 miles per gallon. The supply chain crisis and inflation also affect truckers as they deal with sourcing parts and paying higher repair prices.
So there are a lot of moving parts affecting new driver recruitment and retention in the trucking industry, including encouraging those just 18 years of age to become apprentice truck drivers. But as the past two years have made brutally clear, the trucking sector is absolutely critical to this nation’s economy and to the health and well-being of the American people, during good times and crises. So, these are not just trucking issues, they are everyone’s issues.
Elaine Chao was the 24th.U. S. secretary of Labor and 18th U. S. secretary of Transportation and the first Asian American woman to be appointed to a President’s Cabinet. She serves on the board of Embark, a self-driving truck technology company.
This article originally appeared on The Hill