Truck drivers are in big demand, and Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey is starting a new training program to try to increase the supply.
According to the American Trucking Association there’s an immediate need for 30,000 drivers across the nation. There are 7,000,000 people employed in the trucking industry nationwide. In Illinois 266,000 people are employed in the trucking industry--about 1 out of every 18 workers — according to Matt Hart, executive director of the Illinois Trucking Association.
“The opportunities for someone who drives a truck are endless,” Hart said. “You could drive a truck your entire life, provide for your family and make an excellent living driving a commercial motor vehicle. The job requires relatively little formal education. Some drive a truck early on but then they get a friend to drive a truck for them as well and then they get a couple of more friends to start driving trucks for them and, before they know it, they’ve got a small trucking company with a dozen trucks. There are trucking companies that have 30, 40, 50 or even 100 trucks; they all started with one driver and one truck. The opportunity is certainly up to what the individual wants to make of it.”
The shortage of drivers may seem surprising with the high unemployment rate; the fact that training takes eight weeks or less; and truck driver salaries range as high as six figures in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, but there are hurdles to be vaulted to plug that driver shortage gap, according to Hart.
One problem is becoming a common refrain as the nation continues to recover from the recession — the work force is aged with numerous retirements looming.
“You walk into any trucking company today,” said Hart, “and the average age of the truck drivers will be in the mid-50s. So, you have a group of people that are getting older and are beginning to think about retirement or doing something that maybe is not so labor or time intensive.”
Trucking companies also voice a problem, common in the labor market, of washing out candidates via drug and alcohol testing. In addition to up-front testing at time of employment, at least 50 percent of truck drivers are tested for drugs each year and at least 10 percent of the drivers each year are tested for alcohol.
Unusual to the trucking industry, however, is that, under federal motor carrier safety administration regulations, a driver has to be at least 21 years old to drive a truck across state lines. That hamstrings the industry as high school graduates have to wait a couple of years before they can meet the regulation and, in the meantime, they move on to something else.
And some people start a driving career only to discover that it’s just not for them.
“There will be some long hours,” Hart said. “And, if you’re going to be successful — particularly in long-haul trucking, which tends to pay more than local or regional trucking — there’s going to be a lot of nights away from home. When you tell a young person this is an industry where you can make very good money but you’re going to have to be away from home three or four nights a week — 15 or 20 nights a month — that turns a lot of young people off.”
In an effort to help, the state of Illinois on Jan. 1 instituted the Military Skills Test Waiver Program, which gives military veterans the ability to have their driver skills testing waived based on their military experience. And, the American Trucking Association is working to try to get the federal regulations changed to allow 18 year olds to drive big rigs across state lines.
Here in Southwestern Illinois, LCCC will be starting a new truck driver training program in mid-October. The program is being funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. The $23.8 million grant was awarded last September to the Mississippi River Transportation, Distribution and Logistics Consortium, which is made up of 9 community colleges in eight states along the Mississippi River. LCCC leads the group and received $4.9 million as its share. The grant is part of a $2 billion initiative by the U.S. Department of Labor to expand targeted training programs for unemployed workers.
Truck driver training is the newest — but certainly not the first — job training program offered by LCCC.
“We are constantly scanning the environment to find where the labor market openings are to determine if we need to develop new programs and also to withdraw programs that are no longer in demand,” said Linda Chapman, vice president for academic affairs at LCCC.
In fact, as an Illinois community college, LCCC must prove the need to the state before it can offer a new program. That was not a problem with truck driver training.
“We are authorized by the state to begin instruction and we’re in the process of setting up the program, acquiring the equipment, etc.,” said Brett Reinert, associate vice president, Strategic Projects and the logistics consortium project director. “The demand is there. I was recently inspecting a truck and trailer combination to acquire for the program and the salesman told me that the rigs they have on the lot don’t stay on the lot. He said they were selling 2,300 trailers a year and they are taking orders now for delivery in January.”
LCCC will offer both four-week and eight-week courses depending on the needs of the students. A search is currently underway for a program coordinator — a person who is not only able to teach students to drive a truck but also counsel them up front regarding the career and help them find a job that fits their individual needs.