March 7, 2009 in City, Idaho, News

Truck driving becomes a popular career choice

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Scott Rogers learns how to back up a tractor-trailer at the Driver Training and Solutions school in Spokane Valley on Wednesday. Rogers was laid off from a commercial glass company and is using his savings to learn to be a trucker.
(Full-size photo)

The sputtering economy has led to a surge in applications at area truck driving schools. Driving school directors say they’re getting more online and over-the-phone applications than ever before.

But there’s a hitch; like any other sector, trucking firms have been slammed by the downturn. Paying about $5,000 to earn a commercial driving license used to mean a solid chance to land a trucking job.

Today, the driving jobs are still there but they’re most likely on long-haul routes that will take drivers away from home for long periods.

Pat Hobbs, the operations manager for Spokane Valley-based Driver Training and Solutions, said the school is getting more applications from online and phone-call applicants than it’s ever had in 16 years of operation.

“It definitely is the economy,” Hobbs said about the unprecedented volume of applications seen at DTS, which is affiliated with Cheney-based trucking company Trans-System Inc.

Truck driving classes usually run four or five weeks.

Traditionally there has been high turnover in truck driving. But in a down economy, fewer drivers switch or jump to other careers.

That means fewer openings now with trucking firms than one would normally see, Hobbs said.

“But our students, those willing to work, are finding jobs once they graduate,” he said. “If you want to drive locally, with a gravel company or local trucking firm, you likely won’t get that job. But if you’re willing to do over-the-road, we find our students get hired.”

The crippled economy also means more out-of-work drivers competing for job openings, said John Tetzlaff, operations manager for long-haul carrier CTX Fast Way Transport, based in Spokane Valley.

CTX has eight full-time drivers and now needs to fill just one driver’s job. Tetzlaff says he has a larger and more experienced batch of job applicants to choose from.

Across the state line, Coeur d’Alene-based Sage Truck Driving School is also seeing a surge in applicants.

Two of its current students are Lewiston resident Dave Ellsworth and Sandpoint resident Tammy Newcomb. Both are looking to trucking as an alternate career and a starting job that can pay about $38,000 per year depending on hours worked.

Ellsworth, 42, was with a Washington construction firm until his job disappeared in September.

Ellsworth sensed he better not wait for construction to rebound. He said he’s always been comfortable driving and wanted to give trucking a try.

After classes end in a few weeks, Ellsworth hopes he can choose from a number of companies to work for. He’s willing to drive cross-country despite the toll on sleep and family life.

“But ideally, I would get a job driving regional or local (routes),” said Ellsworth.

Newcomb, 51, has run a family-owned upholstery shop in Sandpoint for several years. She decided to try something different and opted for truck driving since “it seems fun and I love to travel.”

Women truck drivers are a minority. Census data show that women make up just 20 percent of the total trucker work force.

Mike Mires, dean for technical education at Spokane Community College, said people out of work see driving a truck as a good option for two reasons. “One, it’s a short-term program, and two, it’s an area where there are still good chances of getting fairly quick placement, and being hired,” he said.

Mires said three people had contacted him last week wanting to get into SCC’s truck-driving program.

Because of growing interest, Mires said, the program next quarter will double in size, from five or six students per session to 10 or 12.

Mires and others at area driving schools said the key issue is student funding. State and federal job retraining funds can help offset tuition costs for workers who have been laid off or whose jobs moved offshore.

For a worker like Ellsworth, than can mean $3,000 to help with school, said Peg Waldron, assistant director of the Spokane Workforce Development Council.While the economy has slowed driver turnover, the trend is for more truckers to start retiring, according to industry statistics.

The average age of Spokane County long-haul truckers is 49 years old, said Doug Tweedy, regional labor economist with Washington’s Department of Employment Security. The trend shows a steady increase in driver retirements over the next 10 years, he said.

But even that factor has been affected by the downturn.

“People who were thinking of retiring this year may not do that,” Tweedy said. “A lot of people have seen their (retirement) funds hurt by the recession.” Staff writer Tom Sowa can be reached at toms@spokesman.com or at (509) 459-5492.


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