October 12, 2012
A career in gear: Demand for drivers speeds up
Arlington Quarless moved to Tacoma from the Caribbean in 2007 to join his dad’s steel drum band. But when the economy went south, entertainment was the first item cut from personal budgets, Quarless says. The work dried up.
He took a job as a painter. When that also slowed, Quarless, 35, decided on a bigger change. He had always liked trucks and being active, so he signed up for a six-month Class A commercial driver license (CDL) training program at Bates Technical College.
He was hired as a cement-truck driver weeks before he graduated in July 2012. “I love it,” he says of his new job.
The transportation industry is vital to modern life, Quarless says. “If you think about it, everything in your house — even your car — was once hauled by a trucker,” he says.
Demand for workers in the industry is growing. The baby boomers now in these jobs are or soon will be retiring. Recent regulations have had an effect on driver supply, too. In 2009, Washington state implemented a new law requiring 160 hours of training for those seeking a Class A CDL.
Find training: Visit the Washington State Department of Licensing for a list of state-approved CDL training facilities
Truckers’ forum: Visit the Truckers Report for insider tips from drivers
Transportation jobs: Search NWjobs.com's driver listings.
“This means that the roads are much safer, as the commercial drivers on the road now are the most-trained generation of drivers that there has ever been,” says Dion McNeeley, school director at Commercial Driver School in Lakewood.
On the other hand, tougher licensing rules created a deficit of drivers. “There’s a shortage of qualified truckers, so there are trucks sitting in yards that could be making money but don’t have drivers to move them,” he says.
“When the economy improves, shipping goes out the roof,” says Dan French, a commercial truck driving instructor at Bates.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers between 2010 and 2020 is 21 percent growth (faster than average). A total of 330,100 jobs are estimated to be added nationally during that time period.
Companies are offering tuition reimbursement, signing bonuses and more to those holding a CDL. Competition for just-graduated, well-trained drivers is fierce.
To obtain a CDL, drivers need to pass both a written test and a driving test. To get behind the wheel, truckers-to-be attend CDL schools, which give trainees hands-on practice with maneuvering (and backing up) big rigs, avoiding accidents and coping with emergency situations like skidding, a breakaway trailer and bad weather.
Depending on students’ circumstances, training costs may be covered by grants or worker-retraining programs.
Though traditionally viewed as a male-dominated field, French says that women take CDL classes, too, although there are usually just one or two in a class of 14 or so. “They have more [overall] patience than men,” he says.
And that patience is necessary when considering a CDL-holding career. Drivers need to be able to deal with all sorts of impolite road behavior, including tailgating, speeding and getting cut off. “And it doesn’t happen once or twice, but 10, 15, 20 times a day,” French says. “If you get frustrated in a car, you have to quadruple that in a truck.”
Being a “people person” is also critical, McNeeley says: “The drivers are often the only representative of companies.” If you’re delivering a shipment for a large trucking company, you’re the public face of that company. “Drivers spend more time with people than they ever used to,” he says.
“I’m never lonely,” Quarless says of his daily encounters with people while driving his cement truck. “There’s so much activity, and it’s never boring.”
Local vs. long haul
Two types of career paths are open to CDL holders: jobs close to home and those that take you “over the road,” or away from home at night. Up to 80 percent of Commercial Driving School’s graduates take local jobs, McNeeley says. He says that thousands of local companies need CDL-licensed drivers.
Who needs a CDL?
According to the Washington state Department of Licensing, you must have a commercial driver license (CDL) to drive any of these vehicles:
• All single vehicles with a manufacturer’s weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more.
• All trailers with a manufacturer’s weight rating of 10,001 pounds or more, and a combined vehicles’ gross weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more.
• All vehicles designed to transport 16 or more persons (including the driver). This includes private and church buses.
• All school buses, regardless of size.
• All vehicles used to transport any material that requires hazardous material placarding or any quantity of a material listed as a select agent or toxin in 42 CFR 73.
Some of the jobs requiring a CDL are surprising. “You need a commercial license to drive casino shuttle buses, mobile blood banks and mobile libraries. There are so many different avenues” with a CDL, McNeeley says.
Among other recent job postings in the Seattle area with a CDL requirement: water-pipe worker for the city of Seattle, residential-recycling driver, mobile mammography driver, propane-transport driver and delivery driver.
Even diesel mechanics are more marketable if they hold CDLs, French says. “It’s a benefit if they can drive the trucks they are working on. And anyone who test-drives semi-trucks, employees at dealerships that sell semi-trucks — they all have to hold a CDL.”
Experienced over-the-road (OTR) drivers can make from $45,000 to 50,000 per year, McNeeley says, and may also obtain a sign-on bonus. However, local drivers can also make decent wages and sleep at home every night. Companies offer tuition reimbursement to the right applicants, he says, typically by adding a little extra into each check, and paying it off after a year or so.
“We need good-quality people in the industry,” French says. “We need to get good people trained and on the road.”
Seeing the sights
Daralin Lawson, 31, started his long-haul career in August after completing his training. “For my first couple of days, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it,” Lawson says of the work, which requires up to 11 hours in the driver’s seat.
He has served in the military and played professional basketball, but now thinks his new career may be the perfect fit, even if that means hauling 40,000 pounds of sugar from Idaho to Renton.
Many long-haul truckers can have a difficult time at first. “It’s tough on the new guys,” French says. “They’ve never been away from their families for that long.”
Lawson says he got used to the schedule.
“You invest in a good Bluetooth and a good phone, have some good music, and there’s nothing better,” Lawson says. “You’re seeing the sights, taking pictures, seeing all these little resorts and highways you didn’t know existed.”
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