A little-known federal rule change will affect how New Mexicans looking to enter the trucking industry can acquire a commercial driver’s license, and some in the industry are concerned that the new rule will impact everything from supply chains to how cities find garbage truck drivers.
Last Monday, the Entry Level Driver Training regulations went into effect across the country, establishing for the first time a set of federal requirements that new truck drivers must meet in order to receive a commercial driver’s license, or CDL. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that’s responsible for regulating large commercial motor vehicles, says on its website that the new rules are designed to improve driver safety by standardizing training.
The new rules require new drivers to train with a federally registered training provider, which can include everything from private training schools to government programs to workforce development programs operated by colleges, rather than simply training for the test on their own. A federal list of facilities shows 117 certified trainers in New Mexico as of last week.
“There’s a whole lot of municipalities that are absolutely freaking out about this,” said Doug Morrison, founder of Vehicle Safety Programs LLC, a federally licensed truck-driving school in Portales. “Who’s going to pick up your trash, and what are you going to have to pay that trash truck driver now?”
Morrison, who works as a CDL examiner for the state of New Mexico, said creating such a baseline was a good idea that could create safer drivers, but added that he’s concerned the rule would push drivers into truck-driving programs that add expense, keeping some from breaking into the industry. Morrison said private schools could cost up to $6,000 before the rule went into place, and the cost may prompt some potential CDL applicants to look elsewhere for work.
“The value judgment is going to be there that’s never been there before,” Morrison said. “‘Do I want to go thousands of dollars in debt for this hourly job, or do I want to do something else?’”
If it comes to pass, such a choice would be bad news for both cross-country trucking companies, many of which are already facing significant staffing shortages, and local cities and counties, which rely on CDL holders to fill roles like garbage truck drivers, snowplow operators and other everyday jobs.
“A lot of people are going to be caught flat-footed, I believe,” said Clint Bunch, public works director for the city of Clovis.
What do students learn?
The rules are not retroactive, and only apply to drivers looking to procure or upgrade to a Class A or Class B CDL after Feb. 7. The new rules set minimum requirements, and different training providers will offer slightly different programs.
Central New Mexico Community College offers a pair of workforce training programs — one that spans a full semester, and another, offered by CNM Ingenuity, that can be completed in four weeks — for aspiring truck drivers seeking a CDL. Shanna Sanchez, senior program manager for the CNM Ingenuity program, said the program graduates about 120 students per year. CNM spokesman Brad Moore added that the certificate program graduated another 77 students in 2021.
Sanchez said the Ingenuity program is a blend of theory and behind-the-wheel training. Students take an online, self-paced theory course, which typically takes about 30 hours to complete. For the practice portion, students attend in person, breaking into smaller cohorts to practice driving four or five days a week, Sanchez said. Program participants will learn everything from basic shifting to diagnosing issues with their vehicle.
“Our students are out there on pretty much a full-time schedule,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said the program currently costs $4,200, though that may change in the future. Mary Gallivan, senior director of program management for CNM Ingenuity, said CNM is looking to partner with other funding sources to keep the program accessible to students.
“We are always looking to make sure that we are appropriately and competitively priced,” Gallivan said.
Challenges within the trucking industry have been well-documented since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, the American Trucking Associations estimated that the industry would be short 80,000 drivers by the end of 2021, which it characterized as a historic high. The association attributed the shortage to a high number of retirements during the pandemic and a shortage of new drivers being trained, among other systemic factors.
“At current trends, the shortage could surpass 160,000 in 2030,” a fact sheet from the organization reads.
These shortages have been linked to supply chain challenges for goods and services across the country. Johnny Johnson, managing director of the New Mexico Trucking Association, said he’s concerned that the new rule could exacerbate those existing shortages, as new drivers, particularly those just out of high school, may opt for a different path rather than going through the training process.
“They may not choose this industry, and that’s our biggest concern,” Johnson said.
Johnson added that the industry has a higher-than-normal “burn rate,” particularly for new drivers who might not be accustomed to the long periods of time away from home that often come with the job. He said many large trucking companies maintain training programs to keep a steady stream of new drivers who want to be behind the wheel.
“When you’ve got an 80,000-pound truck going down the road, you want somebody who wants to be there,” Morrison added.
Morrison noted that most employers offer reimbursements for CDL training programs, but those tend to come with strings attached. In many cases, Morrison said employees have to work for a company for a certain number of years in order to pay off their tuition. Add in the fact that some schools may raise their prices to keep up with demand, and Morrison said he’s concerned that the cost-benefit analysis will end up favoring other industries.
“With no supply and high demand, the price goes up,” he said.
How are municipalities preparing?
The leaders of city and county public works departments around New Mexico told the Journal they’re concerned that the rule change will make it more difficult to recruit and retain workers in positions where they’ve already had challenges bringing in new employees.
“It’s going to shift that burden to us,” said Elias Archuleta, Bernalillo County’s deputy county manager for public works.
Archuleta said in an email that the county has 69 positions that require a CDL, in the fleet and facilities maintenance, and the operations and maintenance departments. Of those, he said 23 positions are currently vacant, which he attributed primarily to a tight labor market and increased competition from private companies.
“The benefits (offered by the county) aren’t that big of a draw, they want that cash and the check,” Archuleta said.
The problems are particularly acute on the operations and maintenance side, which handles road and storm drain maintenance, among other tasks.
Because the market is tight, Archuleta said the county has largely been hiring applicants without CDLs for these positions and giving them a probationary period to acquire one. He said the county had previously offered in-house services to help employees get a CDL, but they would have to rely on outside services following the rule change, which adds to the cost and may make it harder to recruit.
The county is exploring a change that would make it so most mechanics who don’t need to drive a vehicle don’t need a CDL, which Archuleta said would alleviate some of the issues. For other positions, Archuleta said the department is looking at raising starting salaries, which range from $16.97 to $22.28 for operations staff, to make the jobs more attractive to newcomers.
“There doesn’t seem to be that entry-level market right now,” he said.
Out in Clovis, Bunch, from the city’s public works department, said the city is working with Morrison to offer training and working to set up indoor and outdoor facilities to get drivers trained on-site.
“We heard through the grapevine that there were changes coming, so we tried to stay ahead of the curve,” Bunch said.
Still, Bunch said his department has found recruiting to be a challenge as well. He said a sanitation driver working for Clovis’ public works department starts at $13.23 an hour, and paying to go through a CDL training course may be a bridge too far for many applicants.
“For these kind of positions, we are going to have to have to look at that and see if it’s a possibility that we have to raise the pay,” Bunch said. “There’s a fine line between what you can and can’t do, with the amount of income that the city has.”
Filling the gaps
Morrison said he believes the supply of certified training programs will be a challenge for a couple years, before new programs launch to meet the need.
In the meantime, existing New Mexico programs will need to fill the demand. Sanchez said CNM Ingenuity is expecting a significant uptick in demand for its training program associated with the rule change.
“So there will be an increase in demand industrywide for us to train people,” Sanchez said.
Gallivan said the truck-driving program is more challenging to scale up than some boot camp programs offered by the institute. The program currently operates four trucks, and is looking at options to add more as the program grows.
“We want to make sure everybody who is in a group is getting the instruction time to learn how to do this and do this safely,” Sanchez added.
On the industry side, Johnson said he believes logistical changes are needed to meet the needs for truck drivers. He said he’s expecting the industry to continue to shift to more short-term routes rather than relying on long-haul trucking as much.
“I think in the next 10 years, you’re going to see this industry completely change in terms of how it deals with logistics,” he said.