Backpackers Tokyo

Shortly after sunrise on a recent Tuesday, seven students, all guys, gathered in front of a twenty-six-foot-long box truck in the parking lot of Northeastern High School in Manchester, Pennsylvania. Chad Forry, a driver’s-ed teacher, popped the hood, exposing the engine—a mess of metal pipes and plastic wells. Forry pulled out the oil dipstick and waved it in the air. He turned to his students and said, “Trucks are not exactly like cars.”

Four years ago, Forry got his commercial driver’s license and started a truck-driving class at Northeastern High. He wanted to teach “real skills, transferable skills that students can take to the workplace.” There are around a hundred thousand biologists in the country; there are three and a half million truck drivers.

For the past couple of years, groups like the American Trucking Associations have been making the argument that a national shortage of drivers has amplified supply-chain problems. In January, Congress announced the start of an apprenticeship program that will allow some eighteen-to-twenty-year-olds to drive trucks across state lines. (Currently, you have to be twenty-one to do so.) Critics have objected that teens driving eighteen-wheelers will make roads more dangerous. Chris Rotondo, of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, disagrees. “For a hundred years, we’ve left this whole generation of kids out there who can fight our wars but can’t drive a truck when they come back,” he said.

The kids in Forry’s class were largely oblivious of the new rule. Each had some trucking aspiration—agriculture, diesel mechanics, travel—but the most immediate goal was, as one student put it, to “make it through the morning.” On the day’s parking-lot agenda: how to get in and out of the vehicle safely. “I can’t stress enough how many people take a step out, and it’s icy, and then, whoop,” Forry said.

“One step, three points of contact,” Forry muttered, as a student climbed into the driver’s seat. “I know it’s a simple thing, it’s boring, but if you do the simple things you’ll get work. They have awards for safe driving.”

Students wouldn’t be allowed to drive the truck until the end of the semester. A general tip: avoid honking the horn. (“Company’s gonna get a call: ‘This driver scared me with his horn and tailgated me.’ ”)

A few years ago, with help from the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, Forry raised money to buy a Virage VS600M, a truck simulator. It now sits in the back of his classroom: a bucket seat on a small stage, surrounded by three screens. Among the donors listed on the machine: FedEx Ground, Commonwealth Trailer Parts, Frock Bros Trucking. After the first-period bell rang, some students stuck around and took turns on the VS600M.

At the wheel: Hayden Brothers, a junior, wearing a white Adidas sweatshirt. The simulated truck Brothers was driving had a ten-speed transmission, and he fiddled with the clutch, shifting into first using the floating gearshift next to the seat. A simulated lime-green Audi appeared in his side-view mirror.

Beside the VS600M was a computer with two monitors, which controlled the virtual environment. Landon Brothers, Hayden’s twin, stood behind it in a black Adidas sweatshirt. He clicked around in the settings, turning the onscreen clouds darker. He clicked again, and it started raining. A deer appeared alongside the highway. Hayden slowed down a bit. The deer twitched forward, then stopped, and, as the truck was about to pass, it lunged across the road. Hayden slowed down more, and the Audi pulled closer.

“It’s pretty realistic,” Hayden said, shifting into a higher gear. (Later, Forry had a student text while at the wheel of the VS600M; the simulator tracked the student’s eye movements and generated statistics indicating that he had made four “line encroachments” and had spent around seventy seconds “driving blind.”)

The homeroom bell rang, and Forry took attendance. “Everyone’s hiring,” he said. “There’s such a demand for drivers that they’re willing to go younger. I have companies call me: ‘Do you have a driver? It’s twenty-six an hour, all the iced tea you can drink.’ ” He paused and looked around the room. “I tell them, ‘Not yet.’ ”

Owen Beshore, a senior, hopped behind the wheel. Forry walked over to the control center and turned down the virtual temperature. “Let’s try to start on an icy hill,” he said. Beshore skidded around a turn, then stopped on an incline. A line of cars pushed up behind him. “O.K., clutch in, move to first, release brake, slow . . .” Forry said. Beshore stalled out. He shifted back to neutral. “Engine off, release brake . . .” he whispered, then continued to silently mouth words as the truck inched up the hill. ♦