It’s a special day for Nobel Holmes: he’s finally getting the chance to drive. But he’s not getting behind the wheel of a car or motorcycle. Holmes is driving an 18-wheeler semi-truck for the first time.
The 21-year-old is in his fourth week of truck driving school at Future Truckers of America in Asheboro. On this morning, Holmes and his instructor Jeff Cook take to the back roads of central North Carolina for his first lesson.
“I’m not going to lie, I was nervous as I don't know what,” Holmes said. “Then it started coming to me for some reason, like I did it before.”
The school trains soon-to-be truck drivers for five weeks before they graduate and begin job hunting. It’s an important first step, as the trucking industry tries to fill the gap and get more drivers to enter the industry.
U.S. Faces A Shortage of Drivers
There’s a 51,000 truck driver shortage across the nation, according to a 2017 report by the American Trucking Association. Industry officials expect that number to increase to 174,000 by 2026.
In North Carolina, that number is about 12,000 truck drivers, according to the North Carolina Trucking Association.
Filling those slots is part of the mission of Future Truckers of America. The school has graduated roughly 8,000 students since 1997. However, the school’s Vice President Jeff Cook said even if all the truck driving schools across the country were filled, there would still be a shortage.
Still, Cook says he’s hopeful for the future of the industry.
“No country can live without truck drivers,” he said. “It’s that important of a job. There’s a lot of jobs out here that we can do without. Truck driving is not one of them.”
Reasons for the Shortage
The need for more truck drivers has always existed and there are numerous reasons for it, industry officials say. One reason is the schedule. When they first start driving, new drivers are often on the road for two to three weeks at a time. That could mean missing birthdays, weddings or other family events.
Another reason is background checks. Cook said the industry has become more stringent with criminal background checks.
But one of the biggest hurdles in recruiting qualified people to drive is their medical history.
“A lot of drivers are being medically disqualified for different reasons,” Cook said. “Whether it be high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, that sort of thing.”
More Money for Drivers
Assistant Vice President of Student and Veteran Recruiting for Werner Enterprises Jim Morbach agrees. He said his company is also having a hard time finding drivers who meet their qualifications.
The nationwide trucking company has a partnership with Future Truckers of America to help get more drivers on the road after they graduate.
Morbach said they’re investing more money into their drivers to attract more people to the industry.
“Average salary, first year drivers coming right out of truck driving school and going through our truck driving program making anywhere between $50,000 and $70,000 a year,” he said.
According to the American Trucking Association, since 2013, truck driving salaries have increased by $7,000.
An increase in driver pay, along with generally tight capacity for trucking services and increases in demand for freight transportation services, are leading to an increase in transportation costs across the nation.
The association states the shortage is now a “top-ranked” issue over other problems in the industry like hours of service or electronic logging mandates.
The Future of Truck Driving
For Nobel Holmes, the 21-year-old trucking student in Asheboro, the prospects look good. He will start work at Pam Transport, Inc. after he’s finished with driving school. The company is an over-the-road trucking company based out of Arkansas. His father was a truck driver, so Holmes says he understands the sacrifices drivers make. However, he still encourages others to get into the industry.
“I feel like it’s a perfect time because they still need people and the money is still out there, the money is still high,” he said. “Jobs are still out there. They just need to go out there and get it.”