With so much talk of the trucker shortage and big wage bonuses for people willing to get behind the wheel — business is brisk at commercial driving schools. Hundreds of people are signing up each week, to learn how to drive big rigs.
Instructors at New Jersey’s EZ Wheels Driving School say they could churn out even more new truckers – if it weren’t for pandemic-related red tape at the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission.
“Before the pandemic it would take a process to get their permits and get inside the truck and finish the whole thing and have their license in their hand – anywhere between a month or two,” said Cerso Roldan, the school’s lead instructor. “Now just to get into the actual truck to train can take anywhere from three to six months.”
The hold-up, according to instructors and students, has a lot to do with the state’s continued social distancing policy at MVC offices – which limits the number of people who can be physically present to apply for Commercial Driving Permits, the documents needed in order to begin practicing behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler. Prior to the pandemic, people could just walk in and apply for commercial driving learner permits. But now, they must schedule an appointment online for a future date.
“It’s just that one thing that’s holding us back,” Roldan said.
William Connolly, a spokesperson for the MVC, said the agency has taken steps to reduce a backlog of applicants waiting to apply for permits and take commercial driver tests. Road tests themselves are now scheduled so that multiple applicants from the same driving school can take them at once. The first of three written knowledge tests can now be taken on the same day an applicant applies for his or her learners permit. And expedited permit appointments have been made available for people training to become school bus drivers, NJ Transit drivers, and for some students attending the largest driving schools.
“We have been continually expanding the number of appointments available for permits and testing,” Connolly wrote in an email to NBC New York. “We anticipate that these changes will reduce the time needed to schedule an online appointment for CDL services.”
As of this week, the MVC online portal showed most in-person appointments to apply for commercial driving learner permits were about a month away. There were similar delays for scheduling written knowledge tests. In New York, by contrast, same-day appointments were available for people wanting to apply for permits.
The red tape associated with continued social distancing appears to be having an impact on the number of permits issued by the MVC. In 2019 – prior to the pandemic - the agency issued a monthly average of about 1,500 Commercial Learner’s Permits. So far in 2021 the MVC has issued an average of 1,040 permits a month. If that pace holds up for the rest of the year, it would represent a 30 percent drop in permits issued – at a time when the state needs more drivers, not fewer.
Connolly blamed the slower pace of permit approval has a lot to do with student drivers failing to prepare properly for their written tests.
“We would note that the major factor in slowing down the process is the high failure rate for testing, which forces retakes and reduces the overall availability of appointments for services,” he said. “Over 50% of applicants fail the general CDL knowledge test and failure rates for various CDL skills tests range between 30-50%.”
Victor Martinez, Director of EZ Wheels Driving School, said his students have high rates of passage on written and road tests. And they’re highly motivated by all the cash bonuses being offered to new drivers.
In 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the median annual wage for a tractor trailer driver in the Tri-state area was more than 50,000. But Martinez has a binder of job openings promising signing bonus of up to $25,000.
“Within a month or two months you can get a job and start making 75 to 90 thousand dollars a year,” Martinez said. “The money is great. You get to travel. You’re not in an office.”
But trucking industry analysts say it will take more than higher pay and cutting red tape to fix structural problems with the supply of truck drivers. That’s because the driver workforce is aging. And younger drivers are gravitating toward the last mile of delivery – not long haul trips that take them away from home for weeks.
“You live in your truck. You eat in truck stops. It’s just not the lifestyle that a lot of people seek out,” said Avery Vise, Vice President of FTR Transportation Intelligence.
According to Vise, the total number of American truck drivers is actually near pre-pandemic levels. The bigger problem, he says, is that consumer demand for delivered goods is still surging. And remember the chip shortage impacting car manufacturing. It is also starting to impact commercial truck production.
“I think the limiting factor in this shift is probably going to be the availability of used trucks,” Vise said.