Driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 ecommerce sales in the U.S. are more than 30% above those of the preceding year. By 2024, ecommerce is projected to reach $1.2 trillion, accounting for over 19% of total retail sales.(1) “Supporting this burst of economic activity,” says John Kearney, CEO of Advanced Training Systems, “is an equally fast-growing coast-to-coast network of distribution centers. Each distribution center employs a staff of Hostler drivers whose job it is to handle cargo trailers while they are in the yard. A rising accident rate among these employees(2), and their importance as truckers of tomorrow, clearly shows the need for better training hostlers commonly known as yard jockeys.”

A yard jockey, Kearney explains, is a truck driver whose primary responsibility is moving loaded or unloaded trailers from one point to another while they are in a distribution center or other terminus. (Long-haul truckers, he notes, are governed by strict Department of Transportation limitations on the number of daily hours they spend behind the wheel, time more profitably spent on the road.) A yard hostler is a jockey whose duties may also include loading and unloading trailers. As these workers, primarily entry-level employees, normally do not drive trucks outside the grounds of the warehouse or distribution center, they may or may not have earned a commercial driver’s license.

Kearney, whose company is a leading designer and manufacturer of virtual simulators for driver training, among other applications, notes that these positions have traditionally involved a fairly low level of primarily on-the-job training. The limits of this informal system, however, are being sorely tested by the recent explosion of ecommerce. Amazon has recently added 33 new fulfillment centers in the U.S.(3), bringing its total to over 100.(4) Walmart, which runs one of the largest distribution operations in the world, currently has over 150 distribution centers.(5) Home Depot, which has recently added three new distribution centers in Atlanta alone, plans to spend $1.2 billion on supply-chain facilities over the next five years.(6)

In addition to adding thousands of new jobs, says Kearney, the ecommerce boom, with its emphasis on rapid delivery, has raised the bar for performance at every level of the supply chain—including yard jockeys and hostlers. “In a 10-hour shift,” says Kearney, “a hostler might have to back, turn, and move 50 to 100 trailers, working in a confined space full of people and other vehicles. To do that well and safely, a few hours of informal training is not enough. These employees need to be given a well-educated understanding of the space they’re operating in.”

The best way to provide that understanding, says Kearney, is through virtual-reality simulator training, which enables workers to learn to operate heavy equipment in a confined space without endangering themselves or anyone else.(7) Noting that employment in these off-road positions is a traditional entry point to the better-paid profession of long-haul trucking, where new drivers are urgently needed,(8) Kearney says, “We have two major supply chain problems in this country, an exploding ecommerce boom and a looming shortage of truck drivers. Properly trained, yard jockeys and hostlers can provide part of the solution to both.”