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Commentary: Don’t forget trucking on the road to employment

by Sheri Call
| August 3, 2023 1:00 AM

While August in the Pacific Northwest is still prime summer vacation time, it’s hard to fight off the rapidly encroaching back-to-school vibes. By the end of August, most kids in the U.S. are heading back to school. For secondary students nearing the end of their high school career, they need to start making post-graduate plans. What should they do after high school?

For the last several decades, there has seemingly been only one answer to that question: college. With the sky-high price of college tuition, there has never been a better time for young people to make sure they consider all of their options. Among them, foregoing college to pursue a good-paying job that turns into a rewarding career in the commercial trucking industry.

The job that likely first comes to mind in the commercial trucking industry is truck driver. The American Trucking Associations (ATA) reports that the U.S. is short 80,000 truck drivers. This means that anyone who is able to obtain their Commercial Driver’s License is almost guaranteed to get a job.

As with other professions faced with staffing shortages, the shortage of truck drivers has increased wages. A recent report indicates that the median truckload driver earned more than $69,000 per year, and that the median salary for a driver at a private fleet was $85,000. These are wages that many four-year college degree holders have to work many years to attain. During those years, they are likely paying expensive student loan debt, as the average student loan debt is $28,950 per borrower.

While it will vary by entity and by region, CDL training school costs a fraction of that figure. What’s more, paying tuition to attend CDL training school might not even be necessary. In many cases, future CDL drivers can learn on the job and get educated by the very company that will ultimately employ them as a driver.

There are also plenty of immediate employment opportunities for people in commercial truck engine maintenance. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics writes that “about 28,500 openings for diesel service technicians and mechanics are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.”

Today’s diesel truck engines are vastly different from what they were like 30 or 40 years ago. They are more efficient and have significantly reduced their emissions. Even more importantly, they are very technologically advanced. Much like passenger cars do, new commercial truck engines have essentially computer systems in them. Part of this is on-board diagnostics, meaning that the technician will immediately be notified of exactly what is wrong and needs to be addressed. In older versions of truck engines, that was not the case. Technology is making the job of an engine maintenance technician easier than it used to be. That is also the case with driving jobs, as new trucks offer comfort and advanced safety technologies (electronic stability control, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, to name a few) that did not exist decades ago.

The decision to not pursue a four-year college degree, or at least not immediately, is a big one. It is also a trend that has already started. A paper from the Brookings Institution states, “From 2010 to 2021, undergraduate enrollment dropped by 15%, translating into about 2.6 million fewer students.”

A career as a maintenance technician or a driver in the commercial trucking industry will be a rewarding one. Everything we buy was on a truck at one point or another, during its journey to the store where you bought it, or your front door step. Without truck drivers and the technicians who maintain the trucks, our economy would stop. We could not get food, medication, clothing, or anything else.

We’ve already seen a strong interest in CDL programs in areas like Connell High School in central Washington. Faced with a shortage of drivers for everything from Amazon deliveries to food processing, Connell developed a CDL prep class. As a result, more students see trucking as a viable career path and stay engaged in school, providing post-graduate employment pathways.

A four-year degree isn’t for everyone, and the financial considerations associated with it are steep. It’s still August, but September (and June graduations) arrive quickly. Anyone looking for a long and rewarding career — minus the student debt —should consider a career in the trucking industry.

Sheri Call is President and CEO of the Washington Trucking Associations.