Shortly after sunrise on a recent Tuesday, seven college students, all boys, gathered in front of a 26-foot-long box truck in the parking lot of Northeastern High School in Manchester, Pennsylvania. Chad Forry, a driving instructor, blew off the hood, exposing the engine – a jumble of metal pipes and plastic wells. Forry pulled out the dipstick and waved it in the air. He turned to his students and said, “Trucks aren’t exactly like cars.
Four years ago, Forry got his commercial driver’s license and started a truck driving course at Northeastern High. He wanted to teach “real skills, transferable skills that students can bring to work.” There are about a hundred thousand biologists in the country; there are three and a half million truckers.
Over the past two years, groups like the American Trucking Associations have argued that a national shortage of drivers has amplified supply chain problems. In January, Congress announced the launch of an apprenticeship program that will allow 18- to 20-year-olds to drive trucks across state lines. (Currently, you have to be twenty-one to do so.) Critics objected that teenagers driving eighteen-wheelers would make the roads more dangerous. Chris Rotondo of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration disagrees. “For a hundred years we left that whole generation of kids there who can fight our wars but can’t drive a truck when they come back,” he said.
The children in Forry’s class were largely unaware of the new rule. Everyone had trucking aspirations – farming, diesel mechanics, travel – but the most immediate goal was, as one student put it, to “get through the morning.” On the program for the day in the car park: how to get in and out of the vehicle in complete safety. “I can’t stress enough how many people are coming out, and it’s freezing, and then, shout“, said Forry.
“One step, three points of contact,” muttered Forry as a student climbed into the driver’s seat. “I know it’s a simple thing, it’s boring, but if you do simple things, you’ll get work done. They have rewards for safe driving.
Students would not be allowed to drive the truck until the end of the semester. A general advice: avoid honking your horn. (“The company is going to get a call: ‘This driver scared me with his horn and stalked me.'”)
A few years ago, with the help of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, Forry raised money to buy a Virage VS600M, a truck simulator. He now sits at the back of his class: a bucket seat on a small stage, surrounded by three screens. Among the donors listed on the machine: FedEx Ground, Commonwealth Trailer Parts, Frock Bros Trucking. After the bell for the first period rang, some students stayed and took turns on the VS600M.
At the wheel: Hayden Brothers, a junior, wearing a white Adidas sweatshirt. The simulated truck Brothers was driving had a ten-speed transmission, and he fiddled with the clutch, shifting first using the floating shifter next to the seat. A simulated lime-green Audi appeared in his rear view mirror.
Next to the VS600M was a computer with two monitors, which controlled the virtual environment. Landon Brothers, Hayden’s twin, stood behind in a black Adidas sweatshirt. He clicked into settings, making the on-screen clouds darker. It clicked again and it started to rain. A deer appeared along the road. Hayden slows down a bit. The deer surged forward, then stopped and, as the truck was about to pass, it crossed the road. Hayden slowed further and the Audi closed in.
“It’s pretty realistic,” Hayden said, kicking into high gear. (Later, Forry received a student text while driving the VS600M; the simulator tracked the student’s eye movements and generated statistics indicating that he had made four “line encroachments ‘ and had spent about seventy seconds ‘driving blind’.)
The class bell rang and Forry took attendance. “Everyone is hiring,” he said. “There is such a demand for drivers that they are ready to get younger. I have companies calling me, ‘Do you have a driver? It’s 8 p.m., all the iced tea you can drink. He stopped and looked around the room. “I tell them, ‘Not yet.’ ”
Owen Beshore, a senior, took the wheel. Forry walked over to the control center and lowered the virtual temperature. “Let’s try to start on an icy hill,” he said. Beshore skidded around a turn, then came to a stop on an incline. A line of cars stopped behind him. “OK, clutch, go first, release the brake, slow down…” said Forry. Beshore stalled. He went back to neutral. “Engine off, release the brake. . .” he whispered, then continued mouthing words silently as the truck rolled up the hill. ♦