One of just 16 unsupervised under-21s in FMCSA's apprenticeship program: Meet Will Dodson

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Well, it's official. About a year and a half into it, the FMCSA's much-heralded Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program for under-21 interstate CDL drivers is sputtering on the runway. According to agency public affairs rep Cicely Waters, just “16 apprentice drivers have progressed to the unsupervised stage," past the probationary periods when they're required to be accompanied by a more experienced professional.

"Overall," she added, "we have received 36 apprentice driver applications to the pilot program.” That's it. 36. In almost two years. 

'We heard of this one carrier in Wisconsin'... 

What went wrong?

Shanna Gray, South Dakota-based truck owner and safety consultant, pins the problem on insurance, echoing Overdrive 2021 Small Fleet Champ Jason Cowan's considered thoughts about the insurance barrier for under-21 drivers at smaller fleets.   

“The real hurdle is insurance," Gray said. "We have a lot of 18-year-olds out here who have grown up on farms and have been around equipment all their lives. They would do just fine in the program. But during the South Dakota Safety Council meeting we [recently] met with a rep from Great West Casualty, and the insurance situation is pretty prohibitive. It can be done, but it’s all based on safety rating, CSA score and claims.

"We heard of this one carrier in Wisconsin which had been approved by Great West.”

With so few apprentices having made it to the solo driver stage, and many, if not most, of the carriers who originally applied to participate in the SDAP program no longer actively recruiting for it, I wanted to have a conversation with a young driver who actually made it through, someone who is out there right now making a living over the road.

Meet 19-year-old Will Dodson.

Will Dodson in Badger Express truckWill Dodson currently pulls for Wisconsin-headquartered Badger Express.

'I was willing to do anything to drive OTR.'

Will Dodson
Age: 19
Occupation: OTR trucker
Past jobs: Welder

Will DodsonWill Dodson“I grew up in Jasper, Georgia," a small town in the north Georgia mountains, Will Dodson said. "I also spent many summers and school vacations at my family’s house on St. Simon's Island off the coast of Georgia. So I felt like I had the best of Georgia -- the mountains and the beach.”

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Dodson is perhaps perfectly suited for the under-21 program, given he's ”been seriously interested in trucking since my early teenage years," he said. "As a hobby, I build truck models." He's crafted models of classics like a 1980s Peterbilt 359, a '72 Freightliner cabover. "I just completed a 90s W900 Kenworth (orange and chrome), and I'm working on a 90’s 379 Peterbilt next."

Through high school, Dodson did dual enrollment at a local technical school for welding, yet he "always wanted" his CDL, he said. "I even dated a girl in high school whose dad owned a small trucking company and had some really cool rigs. After graduating high school and a short stint of full-time welding, I finally decided to pursue my true passion -- becoming a long-haul truck driver."

He got his Class A learning with a manual transmission at a CDL school. Instructors at the school, as do so many, told him he'd never "have any trouble finding a job," he said. Yet they weren't taking into account his age with that statement, and knew nothing of the new SDAP program.

"For someone under 21, it is really very tough" to find work, especially if you want to be driving a Class 8 tractor, Dodson said. The CDL school was in fact of the type that matched enrollees to potential employers, yet reps were up-front with Dodson that none of the carriers they worked with would consider him until he was 21. So while he was training, his father helped him search and apply for jobs.

"Every company we looked at wanted 12 months of experience or more," he said. "More importantly, I couldn’t even get through the application process because they all wanted someone 21 or older. Based on what I’ve learned," as noted earlier, "it seems like insurance is the real issue."

Then he found Badger Express. "Because of Badger’s safety record, and because their trucks were already outfitted to meet the SDAP program requirements, it wasn’t an issue for them,“ he said. He was off to the proverbial races. 

[Related: Are under-21 interstate drivers worth the hassle?]

“One of the greatest compliments I have ever received was from an ‘old school’ trucker that I met," Dodson said. "During the conversation, he told me that I was a '60-year-old trucker in a 19-year-old’s body.'

“I was willing to do anything to drive OTR."

At the time Dodson began his apprenticeship with Badger Express, he was “one of four" apprentices nationwide, according to Shawn Coyle, safety and recruiting manager for the Fall River, Wisconsin-based small fleet. For his part, Coyle maintains the apprenticeship program “wasn't that big of a deal. We already had the safety measures in place."

Those measures require carriers to use active-braking collision mitigation systems, forward- and in-cab-facing event recording camerasspeed limiters set at 65 mph or less, and automated manual transmissions. As previously noted, under-21 drivers progress through probationary driving periods alongside an experienced driver. 

"Our insurance company decided to take a chance on us because of our excellent safety record," Coyle added. "Yes, you have to provide a trainer and keep records. People still call us all the time. We keep telling them, ‘You have to already have a CDL before we can hire you.’”

For Will Dodson, the "safety measures" are what they are -- required for the SDAP program, so he was ready for any and all. At once, "at times, the safety measures are frustrating," he said. "For instance, the anti-collision system can give false alarms often -- it alarms and automated braking [kicks in] when you get close to a traffic barrel, and as you know, there are many, many construction zones. Sometimes it feels like the truck is trying to drive me instead of me driving the truck."

And those in-cab cameras? "You just learn to ignore it. It has helped me in at least one situation where a four-wheeler reported me for cutting him off, but it was clear on camera it wasn’t even close," he said. "Badger is pretty cool about the camera -- I don’t feel like someone is watching me all day. Sometimes I have fun with the camera by talking into it, especially when I think an alarm has sounded and someone might pop on to see what has happened.”

[Related: In-cab and out, camera options expand amid push-pull of privacy concern, regulatory attention]

I wondered with all the carriers Dodson could choose from, what in the world was a Georgia boy doing in the frigid north. Turns out most carriers from his neck of the woods had already dropped out of the program.

“At the time I joined the SDAP program, there were about 20 carriers that were part of [it] but only a few of them actually had their program operational, and none of the ‘operational’ carriers were in Georgia or even the Southeast," said Dodson. "I did some research on Badger Express and communicated with Shawn Coyle. They really seemed to have a well-defined program, but I was going to be their first SDAP apprentice -- which also made Badger even more interesting to me. I was willing to move anywhere to become an OTR driver.”

So Dodson, then 18, headed to the frozen north. 

He found a home with Badger, and a champion and mentor in Shawn Coyle.

Given the reluctance among other carriers to negotiate the mountain of requirements and insurance hurdles for the SDAP program, plus normal rates of attrition among long-haul initiates across the board, Will Dodson may very well be the program’s Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to climb that Everest.

While the FMCSA will not comment on individual drivers within the program, he is certainly one of its first.

Here's to a long and prosperous career, Will.

Access all pieces of Long Haul Paul's "Faces of the Road" series of profiles and oral histories via this link. 

[Related: The feds want trucking apprenticeships: How does an 'Owner-operator Mentor Academy' sound?]

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