Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine

In the driver's seat
Trucking school helps students put the hammer down on a new career

by Bob McEowen

Lenny Miller of Joplin, a student at Crowder College Transport Training in Neosho, checks his mirrors after completing an exercise on the school’s driving range. The school’s five-week-long course prepares students for a career as a truck driver.

Many of us have thought about it. Out on the interstate, we come upon an 18-wheeler and begin to pass. At some point, we look up and see a sign on the back of the trailer. “Drivers Wanted!”

We wonder what it would be like to drive a big rig. Is that a career I would enjoy? Could I do it?

With the economy in the doldrums and jobs disappearing, many Americans are looking for new careers, and truck driving appears to be an option for some. Although the interstate cowboy image presented in song and movies may not be accurate, the trucking industry does offer the chance to earn a good living after a relatively short period of training.

“Truck driving has always had a certain glamour and it’s very attractive, but it’s a job just like any other,” says Jared Starks, director of Crowder College Transport Training in Neosho. “You’re not going to get rich doing it, but if you’re down and out, this will get you back on your feet quickly. In five weeks, you’re in a job and earning $40,000 a year.”

While five weeks from jobless to jamming gears sounds too good to be true, that is the possibility that truck-driving school holds for many students. Part of Crowder College Career Institute, the five-week course at Neosho teaches the basics of operating a big truck, prepares students for the commercial driver’s license (CDL) examination and provides invaluable access to recruiters in the transportation industry.

“We teach them how to be professional drivers,” Starks says. “We’ll take them from knowing nothing about truck driving to presenting them with multiple job opportunities.”
Founded in 1985, Crowder’s program is one of nearly a dozen trucking schools in Missouri, but one of only four affiliated with an accredited college. Of those, Crowder is the oldest. (Truck-driving programs also are available at Ozark Technical Community College in Springfield, Kansas City’s Metropolitan Community College and Mineral Area College in Park Hill.)

Tuition at Crowder’s transport school is $3,125 and covers all books and materials. Room and board is available for an additional $595.

Requirements for admission include a valid driver’s license and a relatively clean driving record — no more than three moving violations in the past three years or one alcohol, drug or careless driving conviction during the past five years. Students must speak, read and write English proficiently, pass a physical exam and obtain a Class A CDL learner’s permit before the start of classes. The school is open to students over the age of 18, but federal law allows interstate travel only for truckers over 21.

Daniel Scott, left, listens as instructor Kelli Miller offers advice on backing a trailer.

Classes begin every two to three weeks, with two five-week sessions running concurrently throughout the year. Typically, students are in their 40s and beginning new careers. At the completion of training, the school helps students prepare applications and make connections with potential employers.

One company that looks to the school for new hires is Con-Way Truckload, which operates a 2,600-tractor fleet based in Joplin. Con-Way Vice President of Safety and Recruiting Randy Cornell says the transportation industry offers a welcome career change for many applicants.

“A lot of people just want to change their occupation. They want to get out there on the road. They want to see the country. Maybe they’ve worked in a factory for the last 10 or 15 years and they just want to get out and see some things they’ve never seen before,” Cornell says. “Driving will afford them that opportunity and, in conjunction, they’ll make a good living at it.”

Kelli Miller, a former long-haul trucker and a Crowder instructor for the past 12 years, says the desire for a new life is about the only thing that students have in common. “All walks of life come through here,” says Miller, who drove a truck with her husband before deciding to raise a family off the road. “We’ve had homeless people. There have been school administrators. We’ve had a couple of doctors.”

With eight instructors, a fleet of 19 trucks and 10 miles of roadway within its training range, Crowder’s truck-driving school offers everything a student driver needs. And while some trucking schools spend weeks in the classroom before any actual driving takes place, here students get behind the wheel on day one.

The hands-on experience appeals to students, many of whom travel to Neosho not just from southwest Missouri and the surrounding states of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas, but from across the nation.

At the beginning of every day, students complete an exhaustive pre-trip inspection of their truck, a practice required of professional drivers on the road.

“More truck-driving time, that’s what I figure is the most important,” says Rick Bilbrey, who enrolled at Crowder after considering schools in his home state of Florida. “Those schools are only three weeks and you only drive one week. This school put me in the driver’s seat the first day.”

From the beginning of school, when students are exposed to the basics of double shifting, to the final week when they learn to control a skidding tractor and trailer, every day is devoted to safely and competently handling a big truck.

“They learn how to use and operate the clutch. That is typically one of the hardest things for students to learn,” says Starks, a New-Mac Electric Cooperative member. “Backing is another hard one. People can’t think in reverse. Turn the wheel left to go right. It’s a hard concept for a lot of students to understand.”

Located on the site of Camp Crowder, a decommissioned World War II Army base, Crowder College Transport Training boasts a facility few trucking schools can match. Most notable is a 150,000-square-foot skid pad, believed to be the largest in the nation. Here, instructors lock up brakes by remote control to send truck and trailer careening across the skid pad’s flooded surface.

“You can show people a video. You can tell them what to do in a skid situation, but until they actually get in a skid, they really don’t know what it’s like,” says Cornell, whose employer sends new hires from other schools to Crowder for a post-graduate bootcamp. “Having that skid pad and the ability to actually put them in a skid situation is truly some of the best training they’ll ever get.”

Rick Bilbrey of Sarasota, Fla., takes a turn behind the wheel during his third week of training. The former wallpaper hanger is looking for a new career now that his children are grown.

In addition to the skills necessary to operate a truck, students master the pre-trip inspections that are required by law. They learn essentials of basic maintenance, such as how to change fluids and install tire chains. They also gain knowledge about maintaining hours-of-service logbooks and working with shippers and dock workers.
At the end of the five-week course, students take the state exam to earn a CDL license. The examination is given on-site at Crowder, the only third-party testing site in Missouri permitted to administer CDL exams to the public.

“We don’t guarantee a CDL. It’s all up to them what they learn and how much they want to develop,” Starks says, acknowledging a black eye the transportation industry has received at the hands of so-called “CDL mills.”

The challenge is real. It’s not easy to learn to handle a road tractor and a 53-foot trailer. The difficulty is not lost on students.

“It’s not as easy as it seems,” says Jason Owen, a former cook from Joplin who enrolled at Crowder in November. “There’s a lot more involved in this than what you would think. It’s not that it’s hard, there’s just a lot to it.”

Even after earning their CDLs, there’s also no guarantee drivers will find work. Although the school says more than 95 percent of its graduates land jobs in trucking, the poor economy has reduced the need for drivers.

“To be honest, the demand right now is a little bit low for students,” says Starks, adding that many trucking companies prefer to hire experienced drivers. “Throughout the summer, it was really slow. It was hard to get recruiters in, but that is now rebounding.”

Starks’ optimistic outlook is echoed by Tom Crawford, executive director of the Missouri Trucking Association (previously the Missouri Motor Carriers Association).

“As we look to the future, I think truck driving is going to be a very good career option,” Crawford says. “Right now, there’s more drivers than jobs, but as the economy picks up and we come out of this recession and goods and services and products are being delivered, there’s going to more jobs than drivers.”

A student practices backing a big rig under the watchful eye of an instructor.

That’s welcome news to the men and women who set out on the road to a new career by enrolling in schools like Crowder Transport Training. After devoting more than $3,000 and five weeks of their lives to a new start, it’s reassuring that there will be work to do at the end.

Brent Nichols, a 44-year-old former police officer from Grove, Okla., has no doubt.

“Even though the economy is kind of slow, people need stuff to move. You’ve got to have these semis. They’ve got to go up and down the road,” says Nichols, who hopes to operate his own trucking company someday. “There’s a niche out there, and I’ll find it.”

For more information, contact Crowder College Transport Training, 601 Laclede Avenue, Neosho, MO 64850; phone 800-541-2891, or log on to www.truckschool.org.

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