LMC’s trucking program putting new drivers on the road
James Lewe was at a crossroads.
With a resume filled with warehouse and construction jobs, temp services, and stints at a local grocery chain, the 39-year-old Niles resident was looking for something more.
"That's when I started thinking that maybe I could get a job with a local company driving a trash truck," Lewe said. "But you needed a Class B license. I called Michigan Works to see if they could help me out, and that's how I found out about the LMC program with Tri-Area Trucking."
Lewe is one of the first 15 students to complete Lake Michigan College's three-week Commercial Driver's License program. The program, which began in October 2020 operating in partnership with Tri-Area Trucking School, and N&M Transfer Co., prepares students to earn their Class A CDL and start a career as heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers.
The industry, projected to grow 6 percent in the next 10 years, is already experiencing a driver shortage. According to The American Trucking Association, it takes 3.5 million truck drivers to transport the freight necessary to keep the U.S. economy moving. The industry reports a current shortage of nearly 50,000 drivers, with an expected shortage of 174,000 drivers by 2026.
"There has never been a better time to become a truck driver," said Bradly Hardel Jr., the Niles Terminal Manager for N&M Transfer Co. "We have an older generation of truck drivers, and now they are getting to that age where they are retiring, and there are not enough up-and-coming new drivers. It's creating this void, especially as we start to come out of this pandemic. Freight levels are coming back, and that has only increased the need for drivers."
Hardel added that people have a misconception the industry is solely made up of long-haul truckers, who are away from home for weeks at a time.
"At a place like N&M, you work Monday through Friday. You don't work weekends. You are home every night, and you are sleeping in your own bed every night," Hardel said. "On top of that, we are starting new drivers off at $65,000 to $75,000 a year. The trucking industry has great health benefits as well. We have things like flex spending and a 5 percent 401K match. This industry has a ton to offer."
The short training program, job prospects, and the projected salary were enough of an incentive for Lewe, who now works for Sysco, delivering daily to Valparaiso, Ind.
"It's been life-changing," he said. "I can't even put it into words. I am home every single day. I do not work weekends. There are all kinds of perks. Three months into it, I am making enough money that my wife, Amy, can now stay home. It's changed my life completely."
Students in LMC's program begin with a week of classroom instruction to learn the basics of the trucking industry, vehicle systems, Federal Motor Carrier Regulations, defensive driving, trip planning, map reading, and more.
After obtaining a Commerical Learner Permit (CLP) and a Department of Transportation (DOT) Physical and Drug Screen, students begin two weeks of skills training at the N&M Niles Terminal, adjacent to LMC's Niles Campus. Students learn urban, rural, and highway driving techniques, straight-line backing, alley docking, and vehicle inspection.
Those who complete the program are then eligible to take the CDL license exam and apply for jobs as commercial drivers.
The demand for drivers is so great that many students have jobs lined up before taking their CDL exam.
"Until this program started, I had never had a business come out and ask to be able to talk to the students during class because they want to hire them," LMC's Director of Regional Campuses Jeremy Burleson said. "I have had multiple employers ask, 'Hey, can I get in front of your students? We want to hire them right away.'"
Hardel, for example, hired two of the first five drivers to complete the program and expects to hire more.
"When we hire new drivers, they start on student-level restrictions where they continue training before we cut them loose on their own," he said. "It's regular for new drivers to be on these restrictions for a month or more. The two employees we hired from this program were on student-level restrictions for less than a week. It just shows that they are doing an excellent job getting these drivers up to speed."
Lewe, who has been working for Sysco for months now, is still getting job offers.
"I get emails daily," he said. "I have temp services, recruiting services calling me and texting me asking if I can come work for them. Even when I tell people that I already have a job and I am committed, people ask, 'How committed are you?' It's crazy."
Although the entire three-week program cost is $4,200, or $2,900 for students who already have their CLP, Burleson said that only two of the 15 students who have completed the program have paid out of pocket. Twelve qualified for funding through Michigan Works!, while another used a Buchanan Promise scholarship.
While classes are full through June, Burleson said the program is accepting new applicants for July, August, and beyond.
"We expect it to only grow from here," Burleson said. "It's pretty remarkable to have an educational program that takes, at most, three weeks to study and graduate in a high-demand field where students can get a job right after they get their license. To see that kind of quick turnaround and the initial success of our first students is incredibly exciting."
For Lewe, the decision to get his CDL now seems like a no-brainer.
"If someone came up to me and asked if they should get a CDL, I would just shake my head and tell them, 'If you don't go out and get a CDL, you are crazy,'" he said. "There is nothing needed more right now than truck drivers."