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Colorado truck driver shortage a challenge for the industry, but an opportunity for immigrants

Monday March 25, 2019
By Jackson Barnett

Eyob Sekuar, a recent immigrant from Eritrea, Africa, learns how to drive an 18-wheeler at Commercial Vehicle Training Center on March 7, 2019, in Watkins. RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

The U.S. and Colorado are facing a truck driver shortage, a daunting economic prospect as the vast majority of goods in the country are transported by over the road.

The number of drivers has steadily declined across the state, especially in the long haul sector, according to data from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

But even as the pool for licensed commercial drivers is drying up, wages have steadily increased. Companies have upped both pay and benefits as a way to entice workers into the industry with varying degrees of success.

"Businesses really have to be creative to entice people who really haven't been in trucking before," Ryan Gedney, senior economist at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said.

Mike Euglow, the CEO and owner of Commercial Vehicle Training Center in Watkins, there are rewards for those willing to put in the hours and the work. But that's not always an attractive sale for the average Joe.

"It is a hard life," Euglow said. "You really can't get a lot of Americans to drive long haul anymore."

So stepping into that void now are more immigrants and refugees. Many of the students at Euglow's training center, which is east of Denver on Interstate 70, are East African and Afghan.

Take Mohamud Amed, for example.

When he first arrived in the U.S. in 1996, he was just happy to be alive. Ahmed came to the U.S. as a refugee fleeing a bloody conflict and civil unrest in Somalia. As that country crumbled under the weight of unrest, the U.S. offered a safe haven and truck driving offered a successful career path.

Ahmed has crisscrossed his adopted country many times over, and he's been paid to do it. He now works to train others at the Commercial Vehicle Training Center. He offers experience as both a driver and fluency in English and Somali, important skills in the changing industry.

"It helps a lot to have people who speak the same language," he said.

The way Euglow and Ahmed have attracted students is by being inclusive.

"We accept everyone, we don't discriminate," Euglow said. With new drivers coming from many different places, Euglow has made an effort to have training schedules be flexible for student's needs and to have instructors like Ahmed who can offer a cultural bridge.

The result has been weeks-long waiting lists for enrollment and driving tests. Euglow's long lines for training is unique in some ways, but for other states with different commercial-driving regulations, long wait times is part of the problem trying to attract new drivers..

In Colorado, new drivers can take their driving test through a third-party tester. But not all states have such "sensible" laws, said Don Lefeve, president and CEO of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association. In states that require tests be administered through a state agency, the wait times can be a big hurdle to filling empty driver seats.

Another problem is inconsistent regulations across states. To carry goods that are going to travel across state lines, a driver needs to be 21, according to federal regulation. In states that allow commercial driving at 18, like Colorado, they are limited only to goods made in the state and that will stay in the state, a sliver of the total amount of goods that the U.S. economy moves each year.

Also looming over the industry is the coming of advanced technology like artificial intelligence. While there is concern that one day driverless trucks the highways from human drivers, those in the industry are pragmatic about their prospects.

"Given all the complexity, you really are going to need humans through 2040-50," said Lefeve.

Artificial intelligence has several hurdles from technological development, government regulation and security from hackers before wide-spread implementation could become a reality. While companies and the government work to develop artificial intelligence, human drivers will remain an integral part of the trucking industry, Lefeve said.

At the driving school in Watkins, instructors are already looking to the future and starting to research how to train drivers to be test pilots.

The length of time needed to develop AI it will give the industry time to adjust. But, even in best-case-scenario projections, some drivers will be pushed out by ones and zeros, Gedney said.

In Colorado, about 53 percent of drivers are 45 or older — in all other industries that age group represents 42 percent of the workforce. About 66 percent of truck drivers have a high school degree or less, according to data from Gedney. The combination of an older workforce with less education will make the challenge of retraining even more daunting.

"There is a real concern about how do you retrain these individuals," Gedney said.

Several studies have shown little impact of job retraining programs, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While the industry is facing challenges in the present and future, many of those have carved a path for new drivers to make a stake for themselves, Euglow said.


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