This story was updated at 5:51 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021 with more information.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and 14 other GOP governors are pushing to lower the age for truck drivers hauling goods across state lines and boost driver training programs to help ease a driver shortage that is slowing many deliveries and creating supply bottlenecks this holiday season.
Lee, chairman of the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, urged an easing of some federal regulations and signed an executive order this week for state agencies to develop ways to reduce any state barriers to shipments and to boost the number of truck drivers in Tennessee.
"We have worked together with 15 governors across the country to provide a pathway forward for decreasing the supply chain challenges," Lee said in announcing "Operation Open Roads."
But most of what Lee proposed this week will require either federal regulators or Tennessee state lawmakers to make changes in their rules and budgets.
America's trucking industry is short by an all-time high of 80,000 drivers, and the driver shortage could double within the next decade, according to recent projections by the American Trucking Association.
While the driver shortage existed before the pandemic, many drivers re-evaluated their work during the pandemic and retired or quit the profession even as many driving schools and licensing offices were closed last year, slowing the influx of new drivers.
"This is probably the biggest labor shortage ever for truck drivers," said Max Farrell, CEO at the Chattanooga-based WorkHound, which works with trucking companies to help assess and get feedback from drivers and other workers in the industry.
In a signed letter announcing Operation Open Roads, Lee and the Republican governors from Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas blamed Democratic President Joe Biden for the "American supply chain in crisis."
They called on the Biden administration to suspend the federal mandate for COVID-19 vaccines for all private employees and revise any federal policies that deter domestic manufacturing of essential transportation equipment such as containers and tractor-trailers.
But just as the driver shortage developed over many years, fixing the current driver shortage and supply chain challenge is likely to take a while to train new workers coming into the industry and adjust pay, work conditions and benefits to keep more existing drivers on the road, Farrell said.
During a visit to East Tennessee Monday, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm blamed much of the supply interruptions and higher prices of goods on the pandemic and the rapid economic rebound in the past year, which has boosted demand above what many companies have been able to supply and deliver.
Granholm said the president is working on ways to fix the problem, and she said the infrastructure law just signed, and the Build Back Better plan still being debated in Congress, should improve roads, bridges, ports and highways to help expedite shipments in the future. Biden said the employer vaccine mandates will help keep more Americans healthy and on the job working and shipping goods.
In the meantime, Lee's order directed his Department of Safety and Homeland Security to study state statutes that "unduly burden" commercial drivers and might be amended in the upcoming legislative session.
He also directed the Department of Military and Department of Correction to promote commercial driver's license training and certification for former military service members and for incarcerated individuals who will soon re-enter society or who have recently left prison
The American Trucking Association and others are urging the minimum age for an interstate commercial driver's license be lowered from age 21 to age 18.
Currently, those age 19 and older — and those age 18 and above hauling agricultural products — can get a commerical driver's license in Tennessee to drive within 150 miles of where they live. But commercial drivers under 21 cannot cross state lines under federal interstate rules.
Tennessee borders eight states and some interstate highways, such as Interstate 24, zig-zag between state lines. That means that drivers with a state commercial license can't ship goods between Chattanooga and South Pittsburg driving on I-24.
"Commercial driver licenses are primarily regulated by the federal government, but the requirements are issued by the state and we're looking and working with the administration to roll back any types of state regulations we would have to allow more individuals to enter the driving workforce," said Tennessee State Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, who is a third-generation trucking company owner of Charles Bailey Trucking in Cookeville.
Bailey said the state should add more truck driver courses, expand the faculty at state applied technology schools with truck driver programs and lower the eligible age for commercial licenses to 18. The current 21-year-old requirement for a commercial driver's license to drive an 18-wheeler across state lines means that many students choosing their careers coming out of high school are initially ineligible to become interstate truck drivers.
"Many students graduating high school have already chosen a career path by the time they are 21, but if we can allow young people to get into these training programs at a younger age than 21, then we should be able to start training more individuals to operate commercial motor vehicles," Bailey said.
In his executive order, Lee directed state agencies to consider plans that would:
— Modify weight, size or load restrictions on cargo.
— Adjust hours of service constraints to provide truck drivers more time and flexibility.
— Deregulate education and occupational licensure barriers.
— Work with state agencies, companies and local governments to ensure connectivity and data sharing among shippers and receivers.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 423-757-6340