Enrollment up at trucking schools

Enrollment up at trucking schools

Michael Brock is hitting the open road in search of job
security. After two decades working construction jobs, he is tired
of being laid off when times get tough. He enrolled at the C1 Truck
Driving School in Benbrook, Texas, and plans to become a
long-distance driver.
Michael Brock is hitting the open road in search of job security.

After two decades working construction jobs, he is tired of being laid off when times get tough. He enrolled at the C1 Truck Driving School in Benbrook, Texas, and plans to become a long-distance driver.

“Construction is not stable enough for me,” Brock, 43, said last week during a class. “Driving a truck is a stable industry. As long as you keep your report clean, you’ve got a job.”

Americans as a whole may be struggling to find work after a long recession, but there are jobs aplenty in the cab of an 18-wheeler. Trucking companies are reporting a shortage of drivers nationwide, which could delay shipments and ultimately raise the price of goods.

“During the recession, companies had to cut the work force, so now that freight volumes are picking back up they don’t have the work force to accommodate the demand,” said Brandon Borgna, spokesman for the American Trucking Association in Arlington, Va. “A lot of drivers are older. There isn’t that younger generation stepping in.”

But filling those jobs could prove tough. New federal rules that clamp down on drivers and companies with poor safety records could force veteran drivers to quit or retire and scare off new drivers with a blemished past.

And an economist says he’s skeptical when businesses claim to have a driver shortage. He said the current need for drivers may be short-lived, lasting only as long as companies restock shelves after the recession.

Nonetheless, schools that train truckers to get their commercial licenses are preparing for an enrollment spike.

“It’s going to be hot and heavy,” said Tim Megard, vice president of operations for C1 Truck Driver Training, an Indiana-based company that operates schools in four states. “The big companies will be taking out ads.”

Megard said that C1’s schools train about 4,000 entry-level drivers nationwide per year and that enrollment has risen since midyear.

At the Benbrook campus, about 29 students enroll each week. They undergo about a week of classroom work, followed by two weeks of instructor-guided driving practice at a dirt lot along Benbrook Highway.

Two-thirds of C1’s students have jobs lined up at graduation, Megard said. Some companies even cover tuition.

Among the students at CI’s Benbrook school is Jill Wieder-Merrell, 50, who plans to work for Arkansas-based USA Truck upon graduation.

Wieder-Merrell’s husband already drives for USA, and the couple plan to work as a team on cross-country trips.

Federal safety rules restrict truck drivers’ hours on highways, but the couple can cover more ground if they take turns behind the wheel.

The downside to driving a truck isn’t the pay – entry level salaries of nearly $40,000 are common. Instead, the biggest complaint is time away from home. Many first-year employees drive for six days at a time, with one day off per week.

But it’s a lifestyle that’s comfortable for Wieder-Merrell, who has no children.

“I’m from a small town to begin with, and there’s a lot of close friends, and we go to the local store and have coffee,” she said. “And from what I have seen, that’s how truck stops go.”

Trucking companies, many of which have cut back routes and driven off employees through retirements and layoffs the past couple of years, are now looking to rebuild their work force. More than 140,000 trucking jobs have been lost since 2008, and many smaller trucking companies went belly up, a report from the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals says.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, about 290,000 new truck drivers will need to be hired by 2018 to meet the expected demand. Today, about 1.8 million people are employed as long-distance tractor-trailer drivers.

Grapevine trucker Chris Black said the problem “is not a shortage of drivers; it’s a shortage of good companies.”

“Where I’m at now, it’s a small company, and I know the boss personally,” said Black, who works for Champion Transportation Services.

“I’d probably make more money somewhere else, but they keep you on the road a lot more.”

Michael Belzer, a former Chicago trucker and now an economics professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, has criticized the trucking industry since deregulation in 1980.

“Freight transport is a leading economic indicator, but I suspect that this ‘recovery’ is a false one as companies restock inventories,” Belzer, author of the 2000 book “Sweatshops on Wheels,” wrote in an e-mail while traveling last week in Taiwan.

Belzer is more optimistic about new federal regulations being rolled out late this year to improve safety.

Under the new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration rules, known as CSA 2010, drivers and trucking companies are assigned points for safety violations during inspections and crashes.

Ideally, companies that have a good safety history – and hire drivers with clean records – would pay lower insurance rates and be able to charge higher shipping costs.

Leave your comments