Photo Credit: City of Phoenix
SWEO apprentice Lyon Marcheschi reading his route map during field training.

In February 2020, the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) released a report, “Recruiting Personnel for Solid Waste Collection Services.”

As part of the report, the association shared statistics from the American Trucking Association (ATA) that showed the shortage of over-the-road (OTR) truck drivers in the U.S. was at its highest level in 15 years. The effects of this driver shortage have rippled through the waste industry and manifested in a lack of qualified collection drivers applying for both municipal and private hauler jobs.

SWEO apprentice Anna Aponte getting instruction from a trainer during field training.

SWANA cites an increased demand for trucking services, an aging workforce, low wages, low participation by women, tightening of commercial driver’s license (CDL) eligibility requirements, the stigma of working in the trash hauling industry, and occupational dangers as the primary factors contributing to this driver shortage.

Faced with similar challenges limiting its incoming workforce, the city of Phoenix devised its Solid Waste Equipment Operator (SWEO) Apprenticeship Program in 2017 aimed at recruiting underrepresented demographics in the waste space such as women and younger workers to become drivers.

Recruiting new drivers

The Phoenix Public Works Department’s Solid Waste Division provides residential collection and disposal of trash and recyclables for more than 400,000 households in the city.

According to Felipe Moreno, deputy director of the Phoenix Public Works Department, there used to be a surplus of qualified candidates applying for the city’s waste collection openings, but that changed in recent years.

“There was a time when everybody wanted to come to Phoenix if you worked in the municipal world because we’re a great employer, we have great benefits, the pension and pay was good, but then pension reform happened and that kind of changed the game a little bit because there was more contribution [to the pension],” Moreno says. “So, you have a lot of our younger drivers that are coming in that are more focused on that take-home pay versus total compensation. We still are very competitive regarding total compensation, but for people who just want that paycheck, it was a challenge. Between that and the CDL market getting really hot, we developed the SWEO Apprenticeship Program. That was really focused on us saying, ‘Instead of trying to compete with all the seasoned operators out there, let’s invest in ourselves and our workforce.’”

"Just because women might not be recruited to this industry very often, doesn’t mean they’re not interested. They probably just don’t feel like it’s for them because there’s not a lot of outreach their way.” –Felipe Moreno, deputy director of the Phoenix Public Works Department

According to the city, the SWEO Apprenticeship Program is the first of its kind in the U.S. Through the program, candidates receive on-the-job training and instruction needed to secure a Class A CDL license through a year-long, 2,000-hour program. At the completion of the program, participants can become full-time collection drivers for the city.

To promote the program and its benefits, Moreno says the city hosts “info nights” featuring program graduates and instructors where interested parties can come learn and ask questions about the program and a career in waste.

Those who attend one of these info nights are given priority among other candidates who may submit an application for the SWEO program via the city’s website.

Because no experience is required to enter the apprenticeship program, Moreno says candidates are vetted based on attitude.

“One of the things we’re looking to focus on is finding the people with the right attitude and work ethic, more than how many years somebody has been driving a truck because you could have 20 years of bad habits behind the wheel. Through the program, we get to mold and teach people [our] way and they can grow into the company and the organization,” he says.

Beyond the right attitude and work ethic, which the city vets through a series of interviews, Moreno says the Public Works Department looks to diversify potential candidates through its outreach efforts. One underrepresented demographic the city strives to connect with is women.

SWANA’s 2020 report estimates that about 1,000 women are employed in waste and recyclables collection, which equates to about 1 percent of the 116,000 sanitation workers in the U.S. By reaching out to women’s groups and nonprofits, Moreno says the city has been able to generate interest in the program.

He says that there were three women employed in the city as drivers before the apprenticeship program was devised. Today, the city has quadrupled that number.

“Just because women might not be recruited to this industry very often, doesn’t mean they’re not interested,” Moreno says. “They probably just don’t feel like it’s for them because there’s not a lot of outreach their way. So, we’ve made the extra effort to try to reach out to women just to make sure they understand that we’re recruiting, we’d love for them to come out and learn about the job, and we can teach them to be drivers. … I think what’s happened now is as we’ve seen women come through the program and be successful, they’re becoming our own advertisement because when you start seeing a woman on the road driving the truck, [I think women in the community start to think], ‘Oh, I want to do that.’”

Through additional outreach via social media posts, flyers and participation in job fairs, the city also works to attract younger candidates who might not be interested in college or the military by espousing the benefits of learning a trade and joining the workforce.

What it’s all about

After assessing and interviewing the SWEO program applicants, the city works to narrow down who gets accepted.

Moreno says the class size usually is composed of around three or four individuals based on the department’s budget and availability of trainers.

“We want to make sure we’re not watering down the program and having too many people with our dedicated resources,” Moreno says. “We have to make sure they get the quality instruction they need to be successful.”

"I think if you ask our apprentices, they’ll tell you the program has given them a real career. You can come right out of high school and get a job with a great pension and Cadillac benefits.” –Felipe Moreno, deputy director of the Phoenix Public Works Department

Once an apprentice is selected for the program, the first couple of months are spent on policy and procedure instruction. The next phase of the program entails studying for, and obtaining, a CDL permit. After an apprentice receives their permit, they work towards receiving their CDL license. Apprentices with a CDL license are then trained on waste truck operation and maneuverability on the city’s closed driving course before moving on to driving training routes on the street with a trainer and, ultimately, on their own. In this last phase, drivers are still supervised by the city as they slowly transition to have more independence before graduating into full-time roles.

For those who complete the program and join the city’s Public Works Department, Moreno says there are clear benefits. Unlike over-the-road drivers working in other industries, Phoenix’s waste collection drivers have a routine schedule that allows them to be off on nights and most weekends. The city’s automated trucks also make collection safer and less strenuous than what is possible in cities where manual hauling is the norm. However, perhaps the biggest draw of joining the city’s workforce is the possibility of securing a stable job and becoming an essential part of the Phoenix community, Moreno says.

“I think if you ask our apprentices, they’ll tell you the program has given them a real career. You can come right out of high school and get a job with a great pension and Cadillac benefits,” he says. “But beyond that, you have a job where you can grow and develop. We don’t expect those who have been through the program to necessarily drive a truck forever—give us a few years and then move on and grow in the organization—it’s a huge place. So, I think people start to see those possibilities that maybe they didn’t know about before.”

To date, Moreno says 13 of the 15 apprentices who have entered the program have graduated. Eleven of these graduates are still with the Public Works Department (one transferred to another municipality and another joined the Phoenix Fire Department). The apprenticeship initiative has also helped the city pull from a more diverse pool of candidates. Two military veterans have graduated the program, along with five women.

Moreno says that based on its initial success, the city is contemplating expanding its apprenticeship program to include training for those who may have their CDL but no industry experience. This program would require an abbreviated commitment as opposed to the current year-long training.

“Hopefully we’re going to continue to grow the program,” Moreno says. “I think really where we want to be is to be able to pick our workers off the vine, so to speak, and grow them ourselves as opposed to trying to compete with everybody else for all the experienced drivers. … We’re trying to sell people on the bigger picture and the benefits that come with being an equipment operator in the city of Phoenix.”

The author is the editor of Waste Today and can be reached at aredling@gie.net.