Secretary Walsh Touts Truck Drivers Amid Automation Advances

By Dan Ronan and Eugene Mulero, Transport Topics

Truck drivers will continue to provide key contributions to the freight industry as automation is steadily adopted throughout the transportation landscape, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said recently.

While the secretary acknowledged some early penetration into the freight industry by automated services, he said truckers will remain central figures in high-demand areas of the commercial transportation marketplace.

“I haven’t seen that automation completely knocks people out yet,” Walsh said on Transport Topics’ “Newsmakers” series May 16, stressing that broad adoption on that level is “a ways down the road.”

He added, “I’m personally not concerned about that today. As far as autonomous trucks and autonomous vehicles, I think it’s still a little too early to talk about when that day comes, I still think the technology is not quite there yet. We’re obviously going to watch that very closely, but I still think at the end of the day there’s going to be a need for truck drivers in America.”

On Capitol Hill, federal policymakers have yet to agree on comprehensive policies that would serve as a regulatory framework for the autonomous vehicle industry. Senior lawmakers recently called on the Biden administration to outline guidelines for such a framework. In the private sector, major automotive technology firms insist on being committed to testing autonomous trucks with the purpose of introducing them to the marketplace.

Relatedly, the Biden administration announced initiatives designed to recruit and retain individuals seeking to pursue careers in the trucking industry. This year, the Labor Department partnered with American Trucking Associations for an apprenticeship program designed to tackle the industry’s driver shortage.

In December, the Biden administration launched a trucking action plan as a way of enhancing recruitment and retention programs industrywide. ATA has determined the industry is short about 80,000 commercial drivers.

“We’re creating a pipeline for thousands of drivers to get into this industry long term. And I think it’s something that, quite honestly, the trucking industry is welcoming,” Walsh said. “People are excited about this. The opportunity that we have, and the potential we have, to really build up the ranks and make sure that we have trucking — not just for the supply chain issues of today, but trucking longterm in our country.”

Regarding the president’s legislative agenda, the secretary insisted the White House is maintaining its focus on provisions that were included in Biden’s stalled social infrastructure plan. Congressional Democratic leaders in December halted consideration of the nearly $2 trillion safety net policy package known as the Build Back Better Act after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) indicated he would not support it.

This year, Democrats turned their focus on supply chain-centric measures meant to facilitate the flow of freight at commercial ports and boost domestic production of semiconductors. Policymakers in the House and Senate are poised to finalize a bill that would authorize about $50 billion for the semiconductor industry.

“The president is focused on a lot of the aspects of ‘Build Back Better.’ There’s a lot of independent bills out there,” Walsh said. “There’s still a lot to be done in the rest of this session up on Capitol Hill. And I’m hoping that, you know, we’ll be able to get aspects of a lot of different bills.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and amid supply chain bottlenecks, stakeholders sought to elevate the profile of commercial drivers. Their role in distributing goods and assisting in the manufacturing sector has been described as essential.