Harder seeks to lower federal truck driving age to 18; work to flip ‘upside down’ school priorities

209 Business Journal file photo
Manteca-Tracy-Lathrop-Stockton is the second fastest growing area
for trucking and logistics jobs in the nation.

BY DENNIS WYATT

It is possible for graduates right out of high school to land elusive “head of household” jobs in the Northern San Joaquin Valley that pay as much as $62,500 a year instead of settling for a part time job flipping burgers for $12 an hour.

Uncle Sam, though, has placed a roadblock in their way.

Those that are 18 and pass the prerequisite courses and tests can secure a commercial driver’s license to drive trucks in California. However, they can’t be hired to drive trucks for carriers that haul loads out-of-state due to a federal law requiring interstate drives to be a least 21 years old.

Congressman Josh Harder wants to change that. He has signed onto a bill introduced last month by Senator Deb Fisher, R-Nebraska, that would lower the federal age for interstate truck drivers to 18. It would require, though, states to enter pacts with other states to allow that to happen.

It is part of Harder’s effort to improve jobs and educational opportunities in the Northern San Joaquin Valley that he says District 10 constituents have made it clear is among their top three concerns after water and health care.

“It makes no sense an 18-year-old can qualify to drive a truck in California and not out of state,” Harder said.

The connection to jobs is clear. There is a growing shortage of truck drivers. Nationally the average age of truckers is 55. And the Northern San Joaquin Valley — considered the No. 2 hot spot in the nation for logistics and trucking jobs — is struggling to find drivers even with a number of firms offering as much as $62,000 a year plus signing bonuses.

The connection to education is not as clear to many because of the incessant mantra that high schools should be churning out students to fill chairs — and bank accounts — at colleges and universities.

The 33-year-old Harder values college education but believes the public school system has drastically overplayed its hands betting most resources on a high school to college track.

He cites statistics that show 6 percent of American high schools have legitimate vocational education programs compared to 59 percent for Germany. Yet in the United States only 16 percent of high school graduates end up going on to college with even less earning a degree. Meanwhile only 6 percent of high school graduates in America go directly into full time jobs that pay decent and are the first step on a career escalator to better wages and benefits as they further sharpen skills learned in high school vocational programs.

“It (the education system) is turned upside down,” Harder said. “We need to change that.”

Harder is searching for ways the federal government can help local school districts do just that.

The congressman points to Patterson Unified School District in western Stanislaus County that has a vocational program at the high school level to prepare students to become truck drivers as well as secure employments in the rapidly growing logistics sector. It is an endeavor that Manteca Unified has started to implement as part of its repertoire of vocational educational programs through be.tech High School, Manteca Adult School, and Regional Occupational Program training. And not all Patterson High graduates that enter trucking through the school program do it as a career. There is one graduate from several years ago that works in the summer hauling agricultural products from fields to processing plants that is able to save $10,000 plus annually to go toward tuition at the University of California Davis the rest of the year as he works toward a goal of becoming a medical doctor minus a massive debt load.

Harder is disheartened when employers such as Gallo — the world’s largest winery located in Manteca — is struggling to fill jobs that pay $80,000 a year because they can’t secure employees with the needed vocational skills. Harder said Gallo has been toying with the idea of relocating some operations to the Bay Area because of that.

There are other fixes to educational problems that may not be a long-term issue to pursue that Harder wants to address but would take an act of Congress to correct.

One is a Veterans Administration rule that prompts District 10 veterans to enroll in specific college programs at California State University at Sacramento and tackle a long commute instead of taking the same classes at Stanislaus State due to a significant difference in reimbursement.

He also sees a more educated workforce as a way to lure jobs to the district that could help peel off many of the 80,000 plus commuters that now jam the Altamont Pass corridor for employment opportunities in the Bay Area.

Harder is no fan of high-speed rail.

Harder views the billions being spent on high speed rail as a big mistake.

He sees investing in east-west commuter train movements — such as the Altamont Corridor Express service and the Valley Link that would connect Tracy and River Islands at Lathrop as well as ultimately Stockton and Manteca to BART service in Pleasanton/Dublin — as a much more effective way to be commuters off the freeway while reducing air pollution.

The idea that a deal could be hammered out to divert the nearly $1 billion the Trump Administration has cancelled in federal funds for high speed rail due to the state’s inability to meet timeline commitments and divert it to either ACE or the Valley Link intrigues Harder.

“It sounds like a great idea, but I doubt Gov. Newsom would buy into it,” Harder said.

There is also another $2.5 billion in federal dollars that has already been sent to California for high speed rail that the administration is pondering whether to “claw back.”

Harder has no specific thoughts on what to do with high speed rail that is basically a state project.

As it stands now the segment that is likely to be finished for sure that starts from a point near Bakersfield to Merced ends just 14 miles south of District 10. How the system will initially connect with the Los Angeles Basin and the Bay Area is a legitimate question given the enormous cost of the Merced to San Jose segment via the Pacheco Pass that requires crossing California most notorious, most feared and most active earthquake zone, the San Andreas Fault.

An interim solution on the northern end that has been floated to connect with the Bay Area — the original ACE Forward plan — would extend tracks from Merced to connect where ACE tracks will be laid to Ceres from Manteca by 2023. It would also straighten out the tracks across the Altamont to allow for train speeds to more than double what ACE now travels. ACE trains in the scenario would be used to bridge high speed rail from Merced to the Bay Area. The bulk of that plan would unfold in District 10.

Ultimately Harder could be pressed by high speed rail proponents to support federal funds to help pursue the interim solution or to secure additional federal funds to help complete the original high-speed rail concept.

He has made it clear, though, he doesn’t support high speed rail.

For now, he wants to work on efforts to secure possible federal help to expand and extend ACE service and to get the Valley Link in place if the feasibility study ultimately gives it the green light. There is already $650 million set aside from local government agencies west of the Altamont Pass for the Valley Link. 

“San Joaquin County needs to step up and the state as well,” Harder said.