New generation of truckers face DMV backlog to secure Class A drivers’ licenses

 Audra Smith and about a half-dozen others camped out this week at the Department of Motor Vehicles Commercial Drive Test Center in Fontana, hoping to put a small dent in the estimated shortage of 80,000 truckers contributing to gridlock in the global supply chain.

All were awaiting a rigorous driving test that could yield a Class A commercial truck driver license necessary to drive big rigs across California’s highways.

The supply chain bottleneck at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle about 40% of the cargo arriving in the United States, has been attributed largely to the shortage of truckers. The demand has spurred skyrocketing enrollment at truck driving schools and a backlog in appointments for behind-the-wheel training at DMV commercial drive test centers across Southern California.

The trucker shortage is nothing new. Prepandemic, the industry had been suffering shortfalls since 2005 that were attributed to, among other things, a tight labor market, an aging truck driver population and a lack of qualified new drivers, according to a 2019 report by the American Trucking Associations, the largest national trade association for the trucking industry.

The report noted that the industry would need to hire roughly 1.1 million new drivers by 2029, an average of nearly 110,000 per year, to bridge the gap. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation, leading to an exodus of truck drivers who retired early.

Third time’s the charm

Smith, who had camped out for three days, was waiting to secure her third behind-the-wheel test.

The 48-year-old Barstow woman failed her first two tests at the center on Oct. 16, and Oct. 19. She was hoping the third time would be the charm, and remained on standby, camping out Wednesday with the other aspiring truckers.

“This is my new home now,” said an optimistic Smith, both arms outstretched toward the nondescript geometric tan-and-white CDTC building. Her mood seemed to belie the reality of her situation and those of others camping out in the trucking hub adjacent the 10 Freeway.

“I’m still standing. I failed the first two times, but I’m failing forward,” Smith said with a chuckle and beaming smile. “I will not make the same mistakes I made on Saturday or Tuesday.”

And she can’t afford to. Smith said anyone who fails the behind-the-wheel test three times must begin the process all over again, starting with a written test.

Angling for a test

Smith, a student at SoCal Trucking School in Bloomington, was one of the luckier ones. She was able to get appointments sooner at the Fontana CDTC through her school. Others, however, haven’t been so fortunate.

Carlos Arambula, 44, of Burbank has been trying for a month to get an appointment for a Class B license so he can work for Caltrans or land a job in waste management and/or hauling hazardous materials. Having no luck getting appointments at the Gardena or Arleta DMV test centers, which are closer to his home, Arambula finally got an appointment in Fontana — for Dec. 31.

That appointment still stands, but Arambula, hoping to get his driving test sooner, made the trip to Fontana and began camping out. He was on standby status Wednesday.

“It’s terrible. The weather is cold. There are no restrooms. And the chairs, if you don’t keep an eye on them and you’re not sitting in them, other people will take them,” said Arambula, who’s been camping out in his white 1998 Ford Explorer since Sunday, Oct. 17.

He popped the back hatch of his vehicle to reveal a makeshift bed and ice chest filled with drinks and food.

“Technically, I’m a soldier. It’s soldier survival mode,” Arambula said.

DMV wait times vary

The DMV has 23 offices statewide that offer commercial drive tests. In some offices, an appointment might be available within days, but in other offices, like Fontana, the waits are much longer and can be up to 90 days, DMV spokeswoman Arlita Ford said in an email.

She said the Fontana CDTC is a high-volume commercial drive test office, and to help address increased demand there, the DMV has increased its Saturday testing from two days a month to all four Saturdays, and now offers testing six days a week.

Thirteen of the Commercial Drive Test Centers across the state offer testing on Saturdays to accommodate additional customers, and since the beginning of the pandemic, the DMV has offered commercial drivers’ license extensions and began offering more commercial driving services online, Ford said.

While some waiting in line at the Fontana CDTC claim students at truck driving schools are getting preferential treatment and testing sooner, Ford said that practice has stopped.

“While in the past, driving schools were able to secure blocks of appointments for their students, this is no longer the case to provide more fair and equitable access to appointments for customers. The Fontana office offers one appointment time slot to one individual,” Ford said. “The DMV continues to look for ways to improve services and make more appointments available.”

Representatives at SoCal Trucking School in Bloomington and CR England Premier Truck Driving School in Fontana, both of which had trucks seen entering and exiting the Fontana CDTC on Wednesday, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The CDTC in Gardena, another high-volume site experiencing lengthy delays in testing, began offering tests six days a week this month due to the increased demand. It has been scheduling an average of 275 appointments per week, Ford said.

Isabel Charleston, owner of Commercial Trucking School in Santa Clarita, hasn’t landed one of those 275 spots for her students. She said she gave up trying to schedule behind-the-wheel testing at the Gardena CDTC after she was repeatedly informed no appointments were available.

“They’re super busy there. When I go on my computer and try and get an appointment, it says there’s nothing available,” Charleston said.

Wait lists at trucking schools

Commercial Trucking School is ranked No. 1 in Southern California for students passing their Class A tests, and people come from as far as Northern California to attend, said Gil Banks, an instructor at the school. He said enrollment is now maxed out at 35, with 10 prospective students on a wait list.

“We’re getting a tremendous amount of students wanting to sign up. We don’t have any room available,” he said. He said truck drivers, on the low end and just starting out, earn an average of $65,000 a year. On the high end, as owners/operators, they can earn upwards of $200,000.

“We have a (former student) who has two trucks and is making more than $200K,” Banks said.

Charleston said 90% of her students pass their Class-A test on the first try. She attributes that success, and the popularity of her school, to its thorough training. Students receive 40 hours of training — eight hours on the road, 28 hours on maneuvers, and four hours on inspections. They are then given a behind-the-wheel test before they go in for their test at a CDTC.

“If the student does not pass with us, they’re not ready,” Charleston said.

‘I did it!’

Smith, who works as a driver for Technica LLC in Barstow, learned Friday she was finally ready. After camping out at the CDTC in her 1991 Ford E-150 van with a mural, painted by her beloved husband, Charles, covering just about every square inch of it, Smith took her third and final behind-the-wheel test. She passed with flying colors.

“I passed! I did it! With God’s help, I did it!” a jubilant Smith said via telephone. “I’m on Cloud 9, no, Cloud 100! I can go home now. I don’t have to live at the DMV no more!”

New generation of truckers face DMV backlog to secure Class A drivers’ licenses New generation of truckers face DMV backlog to secure Class A drivers’ licenses Reviewed by Your Destination on October 25, 2021 Rating: 5

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