Wheeling toward career change

August 31, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — The harsh realities of business and the romance of the open road converge at Muskegon Community College, in their C.D.L. Truck Driver Training course. Reality trumps romance in most cases, but not all.

The training, offered through MCC's Lakeshore Business and Industrial Service Center in partnership with C.D.L. Training Services of Peoria, Ill., began three years ago. That was back when the trucking industry in Michigan was in better shape and there were many more openings for newly licensed Class A drivers.

Walt Heinritzi, executive director of the Michigan Trucking Association, said only one word describes that business in Michigan today: "struggling." Trucking is directly linked with the state's manufacturing economy, he said.

"If it's not being produced, it's not being trucked," he added.

Ironically, the loss of manufacturing jobs in West Michigan has led to many displaced and disillusioned workers turning to truck driver training schools in hopes of a new career. Tom O'Brien, director of the Lakeshore Business and Industrial Service Center, said it is clear that the demand for new semi drivers is down, compared to a couple of years ago, but he noted that "we still have to move things" by truck, and licensing of truck drivers is a major public safety issue that involves regulation by both the state and federal governments.

MCC offers a C.D.L. course that has earned the respect of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Only 14 C.D.L. schools in the nation have received a tuition grant for needy students from the U.S. DOT this year. MCC's school is one of them, and in fact, has received the grant in two other years.

Slightly more than 100 people receive their Class A certificate from MCC each year. The course is 180 hours over four weeks, including daytime classes and behind-the-wheel training, or seven weeks if classes are taken at night.

Chuck Mulder, a C.D.L. Training Services employee who coordinates the course for MCC, estimates that "right now, somewhere around 75 to 80 percent" of the people in the course are there under the No Worker Left Behind program or a federally funded displaced worker program.

Most of the applicants are referred by MichiganWorks offices throughout West Michigan, which generally pays the tuition or a portion of it. That help from the state of Michigan is critical to many unemployed or under-employed, because at $4,395, C.D.L. training is more expensive than other courses at a community college.

C.D.L. training is expensive because the state of Michigan requires that there be no more than four students per instructor. And then there's the cost of the training vehicle — an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer rig. The MCC course uses three: two Freightliners and a Kenworth, with trailers from 48 to 53 feet long. The cab of each tractor has been modified by removal of the sleeper bed and replacement with up to three seats for students. When used in training on the highway, an MCC rig usually has two or three students in it, with an instructor.

"We're right in the ballpark of (tuition charged by) other private schools," perhaps even on the low end, said Mulder. Because of the cost, the MCC staff works to ensure that the C.D.L. graduates will have a good chance of landing a job.

Although there are exceptions, the typical student in the MCC C.D.L. training is "the 40-and 50-year-old that has lost his job, been downsized," said Mulder, adding that "over 90 percent of them come from some sort of shop (factory) environment."

What they do not have are students in their 20s. O'Brien said 21 is the minimum age for acceptance into the program but MCC does not encourage any applicants that young to take the course because, he said flatly, "They're not going to get a job." Trucking companies want more mature individuals, he said.

"No one's going to hire someone to haul 80,000 pounds around at age 19," said O'Brien.

MichiganWorks also wants assurances that any student for which it pays tuition is likely to land a job, so there is a pre-screening process before acceptance into the course. First, there is a thorough physical examination, required by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Then there is a review of the individual's background.

"When Chuck interviews a potential student, he lays it on the line as to what's needed and what (the student) can expect," said O'Brien. "If they have some kind of record, that may hamper them from getting employment." By "record," he means criminal convictions or DUI convictions.

"So much depends on what baggage may come with him," said Mulder, adding that even a number of traffic tickets may rule someone out. Right now, the trucking companies "are only hiring the grade A candidates," he said.

Truck driving is attractive for a couple of reasons. One is the pay: Mulder said a rookie can earn about $40,000 in his or her first year on the job. Within a few years, they should be in the $50,000 range, he said.

"So you can make a decent living, but it does require long hours and sleeping in your truck, in some cases," said Mulder.

Some unemployed people turn to trucking out of desperation, but some are attracted to it because "there's a cowboy side to a lot of us — that independent spirit," said Mulder.

"If you spent 20 years in a shop doing the same thing over and over again, you're ready for something different. You're ready to see the world and get paid for it," he said.

Muskegon Community College makes clear to its applicants that truck driving may make demands on them that they are not used to.

"In the shop environment, you're told when to come to work, when to eat lunch, when to punch out," said Mulder. An employee on the road, on the other hand, must be an independent thinker because the supervisor may be a thousand miles away.

The training includes paperwork, too, which means "doing logbooks — doing them legally and properly," said Mulder. Students learn the laws regulating how many hours can be driven at a stretch and how to efficiently plan a trip.

There is a three-hour segment in the course called Maintaining Balance, which is taught by a psychologist, according to Mulder. It prepares the new truck driver for issues that may come up regarding his or her home life. Mulder said they try to get the students into the mindset of being away from home.

"How do you then manage your home? Who makes the decisions? How are you going to transfer the decision-making process to your wife?" said Mulder. "These are things they are going to have to deal with. And coming out of a shop environment, they probably never had to think about things like this before. It's a major transition," he said.

Mulder, 63, is in a unique position to understand what the students are getting into; he became a long-haul truck driver in his early 50s after having worked as a sales manager for a Grand Rapids company for 25 years.

"I got downsized, just like thousands of other people in West Michigan."

But he had to find work, and he was familiar with the trucking industry because his customers were trucking companies. As a traveling salesman, Mulder had typically spent two or three nights a week in motels, so being away from home wasn’t too difficult. Sleeping in his truck did take some getting used to, he said. More importantly, his second career, which lasted six years, was a source of anxiety for his wife. It was "a strain being away, at times," he said.

The MCC program emphasizes highway safety more than anything else. In addition to lengthy practice on public streets and highways, the students are taken to the Michigan Center for Decision Driving in Marshall, where they are trained to bring a skidding semi back under control. A soap-like chemical on the pavement actually causes the trucks to go into a frightening skid, for real hands-on experience.

Some people take the MCC course at their own expense, determined to live their dream of being a long-haul trucker. One of those individuals was the oldest student to graduate from MCC C.D.L. Training — a 67-year-old retired minister. O'Brien said the minister and his wife wanted to see the country and make some money doing it.

"He got a job and off they went."

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