Congress needs to act on a plan to keep the foodservice distribution industry trucking — safely
© Greg Nash

The way we talk about food—buy local, eat organic-- reveals Americans increasingly care about the origin of what’s served on their plates. But whether talking about a favorite restaurant or lunches served at school, those foods have to get from point A to point B, which happens via a complex network of deliveries fulfilled by highly skilled and trained drivers in the foodservice distribution industry.

Unfortunately, at a time when next-day delivery is the expected norm, this industry—which prides itself on ensuring a safe and efficient food supply chain—is facing a nationwide shortage of drivers. Reports estimate 890,000 new drivers will be needed over the next decade to replace an aging, retiring workforce. If we don’t find a way to attract the next generation of drivers, our nation’s supply chain will slow to a crawl, increasing prices for consumers across the board.

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The recently introduced DRIVE-Safe Act, wending its way through Congress at a time when transportation and infrastructure issues are the only bipartisan glue holding Washington, D.C. together, can help address this shortage. Lawmakers should ensure the speedy passage of this bill in order to create new foodservice distribution jobs, which pay well above the average wage for a U.S. worker—more than $63,000 annually for truck drivers. Given the high salary commercial drivers earn—without incurring college debt—a career in freight transportation can provide economic security to a rising class of young adults.

However, limits on younger commercial drivers are creating unforeseen bumps in the road the industry is having a hard time overcoming. While virtually all states allow individuals to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) at the age of 18, these drivers are prohibited from operating in interstate commerce until they are 21. That means a 20-year-old truck driver from Arlington, Va., can’t make the trek to Bethesda, Md., approximately ten miles away. But that same law allows the much-longer drive from Arlington to Norfolk, Va., nearly 200 miles.

The DRIVE-Safe Act addresses this obstacle while at the same time implementing training programs above and beyond current requirements to ensure new drivers are safe and prepared. The bill creates a pathway for 18-21 year olds to receive their CDL for interstate travel if they complete rigorous training programs.

Under the legislation, once a driver has met the requirements to obtain a CDL, they may begin a two-step program of additional training which includes rigorous performance benchmarks that each candidate must achieve. The program will require these drivers to complete at least 400 hours of on-duty time and 240 hours of driving time with an experienced driver in the cab with them. All trucks used for training in the program must be equipped with safety technology including active braking collision mitigation systems, video event capture and a speed governor set at 65 miles per hour or below.

More than 1 million restaurants and foodservice outlets in the U.S. need supplies every day. These businesses rely on the timely delivery of tens of thousands of products to keep kitchens cooking, making the role of supply chain drivers in the foodservice distribution industry more important than ever. We should be paving the way for new drivers to sustain our society’s demand for speedy service, not hanging on to obsolete and inconsistent policies.

While worker shortages can often be scary, in the foodservice distribution industry we see this current situation as an opportunity, a chance to create jobs while reinforcing a culture of safety and providing the emerging workforce with the critical skills they need to operate a truck in the 21st century.

Mark S. Allen is President and CEO of the International Foodservice Distributors Association.