By Heather Mullinix
Commercial driving is a growing industry, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating a 21 percent growth in the number of jobs by 2020.
It's a career where individuals can quickly complete training and enter the workforce, quickly earning a highly competitive wage.
In fact, in the past 12 months, trucking companies have added 40,000 new jobs, but in the Upper Cumberland, many would-be students found it difficult to travel to driving schools in Knoxville or Lebanon.
Roger Whittenburg, operations manager for the Crossville TLD Logistics terminal, said, "There was a need to have a school here and there's a demand for drivers."
TLD reached out to the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Crossville to develop a program that went above and beyond Department of Transportation requirements to train and prepare students for over-the-road trucking.
Cliff Wightman, marketing and industrial training coordinator at TCAT of Crossville, said it had long been a goal of the school to offer such a program locally. Cost and available space had kept the Crossville campus from being able to do so.
It's also right up the school's alley to help local industries offer the training they need.
"TCAT of Crossville is committed to supplying local industry with the best candidates for employment," said Wightman. "Our partnership with TLD is a good example of that. Both we and TLD are aware of the shortage of commercial truck drivers and the availability of affordable training sites. TLD has the industry knowledge and the equipment while we have the facilities for training. It is a great fit and we expect great success in the community."
With a curriculum and plan in place and TLD willing to provide two tractor-trailers for the course, a site was also needed to practice the driving skills. TLD and TCAT approached the city of Crossville for permission to use a three-acre tract of land down the street from TLD in the Interchange Business Park off Hwy. 127 N.
The program recently celebrated its first student passing the test for a CDL license, taking the top score at the Cookeville DMV location.
"They told us if that was any indication of the type of school we're offering, they look forward to working with us," Whittenburg said.
More students are scheduled to complete their requirements in early December.
The seven-week program is divided into two three-week segments and a one-week skills review prior to testing. TCAT, with instructor Mike Bailey, covers DOT regulations, understand freight documents, trip planning, logging procedures, and vehicle and vehicle component orientation and safety.
Once that is complete, students move on to the skills portion of the course, working with instructor Gene Powers. There, they practice coupling and uncoupling the truck and trailer, backing, parking, road driving and driving in a variety of weather and road conditions.
"This is a great location for that," Whittenburg said. "We've got two- and four-lane interstates nearby, as well as city and country driving."
Safety is a key component of the program.
"That's why we've gone above and beyond what is required," explained Michelle Whittenburg. "We want to make sure they're ready before they get on the road."
For example, though DOT requirements only call for a 90-point pre-trip checklist, students in the TLD-TCAT program complete a 156-point pre-trip checklist to ensure the equipment is in proper working order before getting on the road.
A driving simulator owned by TLD and used for mandatory safety training of its drivers has not been used by the students yet, but Roger Whittenburg said plans are to incorporate that in the future.
In all, there are 216 hours of classroom and practical instruction included in the course. There are currently three to five dedicated routes TLD serves where students are accompanying the instructor.
The entire cost for the seven-week program is $1,873, offering significant savings over other programs that range from $3,000 to $5,000, with a few as high as $12,000. To help students with the cost of the program, TLD is working with others in the industry establish a scholarship through TCAT. TLD also offers financing options for those who sign a contract to work with the company upon completion of the program.
Students will need a CDL permit for the class. Roger Whittenburg explained that is the first priority for new students and to get that within the first week.
There are prerequisites for the program, including a 10-panel drug screen and DOT medical card; a background check and a check of the individual's motor vehicle report.
The class has a limit of four students to one instructor. Students can enter the program every 3 and a half weeks, Roger Whittenburg said.
For more information about enrolling in the CDL program, call TLD at 456-1300 or TCAT at 484-7502.
The public is also invited to an open house at TCAT Dec. 6-7 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. The driving simulator will be on hand for those wanting to experience what it's like to be behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer rig.