Alabama colleges offer many options to prep truck drivers for their career

Demand for truck drivers has continued to grow each year. Alabama schools are meeting the challenge with programs in transportation and logistics.

As demand from employers for transportation and material moving jobs continues to increase throughout the state, Alabama community and technical colleges play a vital role in training workers to meet those needs.

“Over the past five years, there hasn’t been any indication of a shortage in these fields,” says Barry May, executive director of workforce and economic development for the Alabama Community College System (ACCS). “In fact, demand has remained consistently high and has continued to grow each year. This suggests a sustained need for trained professionals in transportation and logistics, which should also lead to a steady growth in the salaries associated with these careers.”

Paul Hodges is a broker and certified commercial investment member (CCIM) for Hodges Commercial Real Estate in Montgomery. He says right now they employ 130 truck drivers but could support more. “We’ve focused on growing our trucking business over the last few years. If we had 20 new drivers next month, we could put them all to work, I believe.”

Hodges attributes the shortage in part to a rise in employee retirement and a lack of younger people entering the field to replace them. Another minor obstacle for Hodges’ company is a requirement driven by their insurance company that the drivers they hire already have two years of truck driving experience.

When it comes to retaining drivers, Hodges points to the company’s willingness to support work-life balance. “A lot of [our drivers] want to stay local and be home every night; that means a lot to them, and we offer that.” Another perk: modern equipment. “They don’t want to drive an old truck. There’s some prestige, I guess, with a new truck.”

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The company also pays its drivers by the hour, unlike many others that pay by the mile or the load. “So, if you’re not moving, you’re not making money. We kind of take that risk off the table, and it works for both of us: the employee and the employer.”

Houston Blackwood, workforce director at the ACCS Innovation Center.

ACCS Innovation Center Workforce Director Houston Blackwood says, “Transportation executives crave drivers who see transportation as a career, not just a job. They want competent, consistent drivers who drive with safety and customer service in mind.”

And there are plenty of opportunities for individuals looking for training in the field, including degree programs, rapid training options and specialized certifications. “Our community colleges offer flexible options to accommodate different schedules and career goals, ensuring that individuals can acquire the skills they need to succeed in the industry,” says May.

Currently 3,400 students are enrolled in truck driver training in 16 programs within the ACCS, according to Ebony Horton Bradley, director of communications and marketing for the ACCS. Additionally, J.F. Ingram State Technical College, which provides adult education programs and career technical training exclusively to incarcerated individuals in the Alabama prison system, offers a program in logistics; Lawson State Community College offers a program in logistics and supply chain technology; and Wallace State Community College Hanceville offers a program in business logistics management.

Students who participate in these programs don’t seem to have any difficulty finding jobs. “The high demand for trained professionals in these fields ensures ample employment opportunities for graduates,” says May. “Of course, the top posted jobs currently in Alabama are for truck drivers and just a few of the many companies competing for jobs in Alabama are Penske Automotive Group, Kennesaw Transportation, Radiance Technologies, FedEx and UPS.”

Students in the logistics and supply chain management program at Lawson State Community College are regularly exposed to the employment opportunities that await them in Alabama. “We toured the Dollar General distribution center [in March], and the director spoke with students about employment opportunities,” says Stephen Boyd, a logistics technology instructor at the college. “FedEx has been in class to recruit because they have part-time positions, meaning students can work while still in school.” He adds that other companies who currently recruit from Lawson State are Buffalo Rock, Piggly Wiggly and ARD.

Dakota Howard completed the Skills for Success truck driving training program at Bevill State Community College.

Dakota Howard completed Bevill State Community College’s Skills for Success truck driver training program after it was recommended to him by his supervisor at Nelson Brothers, a Birmingham-based manufacturer and distributor of commercial explosives and explosive chemicals.

Bevill State’s six-week truck driver training program consistently ranks with the nursing program as the school’s most popular options. The truck program has operated since 1967 and provides basic entry-level driving skills for the safe operation of commercial vehicles. Upon completing the program, students are eligible to obtain a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) required to operate a tractor-trailer vehicle.

Jason Beasley, division chair and CDL instructor at Bevill State, says the program offers seven day and evening classes each year. The day class accommodates 20 students and evening classes are capped at 10. “In total, we train 210 students per year in those accredited classes,” says Beasley. He adds that they also train students from Alabama Power Co. and Birmingham Water Works through the Workforce Development Program and estimates the program serves an average of 150 students each year.

Jason Beasley, division chair and CDL instructor at Bevill State Community College.

“We also provide training through the [ACCS] Innovation Center, which is how Dakota trained with us. We have some companies, such as Nelson Brothers as well as several municipalities in Jefferson and Walker counties, that send students to train through the Innovation Center. Like Workforce, the number [of students] varies, but an average would be 100. All together in the past 12 months we have trained an average of about 460 students. The program is in great demand, especially now that the federal government requires entry-level drivers to be trained before they are eligible to test for a CDL license.”

Driving a large truck can be nerve-wracking, says Howard. “Going through the course gave me the confidence I needed to drive on the road alone. I can operate and maneuver the truck with ease. I am also now able to communicate issues better and effectively advocate issues concerning truck driving on the job.”

Today, Howard is a substitute truck driver at Nelson Brothers. “If someone is out and my company needs someone to drive, they call me.” His advice to prospective students: show up to learn, keep an open mind, listen and practice. “Getting my CDL A license has provided me the opportunity to add to my skill set, making me more valuable at my company.”

Barry May, executive director of workforce and economic development for the Alabama Community College System.

“Goods only move across our great state and to our families because of commercial truck drivers,” says Blackwood, which is why it’s so important to train residents for the transportation industry. “We have an opportunity to move students from unemployed to licensed in one month or less, drastically increasing the number of professional drivers in our state.”

With an eye on that need, the ACCS aims to offer residents high-quality training quickly and affordably without any unnecessary barriers.

“The transportation and logistics sector in Alabama not only offers promising opportunities for individuals seeking training and employment but also serves as a crucial component in various other industries such as manufacturing and construction,” says May. “With its integral role in these sectors, transportation and logistics present numerous career pathways, allowing for substantial growth opportunities for those starting in entry-level positions and continuing their education and training.”

Katherine MacGilvray is a Huntsville-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the June 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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