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Teaching teens to drive 18-wheelers, high schools creating new pipeline of young talent

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Posted at 12:38 PM, Nov 23, 2021

PATTERSON, Calif. — Inside a classroom in the agricultural city of Patterson, California, high schoolers want to help rebrand the trucking industry. They're using TikTok to break stereotypes and to expose younger people to the profession.

"I've talked to my friends, and they say, 'Uh, trucking?' And I say, 'You guys got to see what it's about,'" said Yuliana Rodriguez, a senior at Patterson High School.

Rodriguez doesn't fit the mold of a truck driver but wants to help change that. In a profession dominated by men, the average age of new drivers is around 35 years old.

"It's someone entering as a second or third career choice, mainly because they have bills to pay," said Dave Dein, CDL coordinator and instructor at Patterson High. "I often think, 'How different would our industry look and feel if people entered into the industry as their first career choice?' People who just had a passion for trucking."

Dein is creating a pipeline of new, young talent to solve a crisis years in the making.

"The predictions are scary," said Dein, referring to a record-high shortage of 80,000 truck drivers.

He says a sustainable pipeline of new, young talent is needed to help solve the problem long-term.

"How do we expect anyone to pick a vocational trade if they've never been exposed to it?" said Dein. "I didn't do well in a traditional classroom, and it wasn't until I went to truck driving school in 1988 and I started getting all As that I realized that I'm not stupid. I just didn't care in high school."

Dein created one of the nation's first high school truck driving programs, exposing students to the industry and creating career pathways after graduation.

While a person must be 18 years old to get a commercial driver's license, the program helps prepare students ahead of time. During the one-year elective, seniors undergo 180 hours in the classroom, 30 hours on a simulator.

"We break down the skills one at a time," said Dein. "We can incorporate so many driving scenarios on the simulator that we don't want to re-create in real life, like a front tire blowout."

Through the Next Generation in Trucking Association, he's working to bring CDL driver and diesel tech programs to schools around the country, promoting trucking as a career technical education choice. He says federal funding is available to support these programs.

"The industry can't wait two years for a high school to try to figure this out on their own. We need these programs up and running," said Dein.

Senior Isabela Sotelo also hopes to inspire young girls to consider truck driving as a career.

"I think I've mostly learned to appreciate," said Sotelo. "You don't realize how much you need a truck driver until there's a huge shortage of them."

Dein says they're looking for quality talent.

"We don't sugarcoat anything. Driving is a hard job, it is," said Dein. "If you're doing it for the money, you're going to be dissatisfied, like with any career. But if you like meeting new people, if you like adventure, and if you like creating your own stories, you're going to have a lot of stories to tell."

For students who don't want to pursue a career in truck driving, Dein says the exploratory class still helps give them a new appreciation for the profession.

Changes are also happening within the industry to create more opportunities for young drivers. The $1 trillion infrastructure bill included funding for a three-year pilot apprenticeship program, allowing commercial drivers as young as 18 to drive across state lines. While most states allow individuals to obtain a CDL at the age of 18, federal law currently prohibits those operators from moving goods from state to state until they are 21.

By exposing students to their potential, Dein believes schools can mold a new generation of drivers.

"We believe the amount of training you receive correlates to safety," said Dein. "I think the industry is heading in the right direction. I've been in trucking for 33 years and have never been this excited about trucking."