Truck drivers in high demand

Truck driving instructor Luke Schier in the yard of Kishwaukee College's truck driving school in DeKalb on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012.
Truck driving instructor Luke Schier in the yard of Kishwaukee College's truck driving school in DeKalb on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012.

MALTA – Wesley Mayne of DeKalb got an associate’s degree after graduating from high school, but he feels limited by his job at a grocery store.

“I was just trying to find something that would make me more employable,” he said.

So Mayne went back to Kishwaukee College, where he is enrolled in an eight-week commercial drivers license program. The 160-hour course – taught as a four-week full-time class or an eight-week part-time class – qualifies students to drive 18-wheel tractor-trailer trucks.

Despite a slow economy and a national unemployment rate of 7.7 percent, there are not enough truck drivers to meet the demands of U.S. industry – and the problem is only getting worse.

Joseph Dahm, coordinator of transportation programs in Kishwaukee College’s Career Technologies Division, estimates that there could be a nationwide shortage of 300,000 drivers in the next five to 10 years.

“There is a lot of potential for drivers in this area,” Dahm said. “We can get guys hired right out of class, or even before.”

A number of factors contribute to the shortage of drivers. Many drivers from the baby boomer generation are retiring, and younger potential drivers are less willing to work as long-distance drivers. New regulations restrict the number of hours a driver can spend on the road each day, require tougher medical and drug testing standards for drivers and track individual and company safety records.

“There are a lot more regulations in the industry,” said Pat Burch, owner of Royce Transfer in Rochelle, member of the Kishwaukee program’s advisory committee and employer of some recent program graduates. “Now they have a national safety program that tracks companies as well as the drivers.”

She added that additional regulations increase the pressure on companies to hire and retain only drivers with very good driving records. Burch has employed as many as nine drivers at once at her trucking company, but currently she only employs six.

“We’d like to be able to grow again but a lot of it is finding drivers who are well-trained and willing to work,” Burch said. “It’s a hard job to do and it has a lot of responsibility.”

The two CDL instructors at Kishwaukee are working to expand the pool of well-trained candidates. Instructor Bob Worley never stops quizzing his students.

“The trailer service brake – do you remember what the book says its purpose is?” he asked a group of students as they sat inside an instructional truck tractor modified to seat up to five people. When he received a satisfactory answer, the questions continued.

“How am I going to test the service brake?” he asked.

Another factor in the driver shortage is the cost of training. Traditional student loans cannot be used toward the $3,711 cost of getting a CDL. But other sources of funding are sometimes available, and some trucking companies help their new hires pay down tuition debt.

Dahm said that many of the program’s students have been laid off from construction or other industries, and are looking for new vocations. Truck drivers are paid by the mile, and Dahm estimates that a starting truck driver can earn $28,000 to $40,000 with good benefits in their first year of employment.

Like Mayne, most evening students in Kishwaukee’s program have other jobs during the day. Mayne hopes to find a local or regional driving job when he gets his CDL so he can sleep in his own bed at night. Dahm pointed out that not all CDL drivers have long routes that keep them away for days or weeks at a time.

“You aren’t signing up for the class just to get the CDL. There is a lot more opportunity out there than you might think. You just need to keep your ears open,” Dahm said. “You can get a CDL and keep it forever but you don’t have to drive forever.” He noted that CDLs are often required to work at warehouses, distribution centers, state highway departments, railroads or as driving instructors.

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