COBURG, Ore. — Standing beside his cherry red semi-truck in the parking lot of a Coburg truck stop, Erik McNeil explained what keeps him in the long-haul trucking industry: “I like the freedom and I love the money.”
McNeil is one of the 1.5 million truckers who crisscross the country behind the wheel of semi.
“As long as America needs things, there’s always a need for us,” McNeil said.
That need though is greater than it’s ever been. According to the Truckload Carriers Association, the industry is short 200,000 drivers.
“[During] the recession, a lot of drivers left the industry. As the U.S. economy starts to get back in better shape, more goods are starting to be shipped. With more goods starting to ship, we just don’t have the drivers to haul them,” said David Heller, the director of safety and policy at the TCA.
Peninsula Truck Lines, which has a hub in west Eugene, is a perfect example of that; it’s seen a steady increase in business over the past few years and is looking at adding more drivers.
“We hope to. We are expanding, but we’re like every other company out there. We want to get our feet wet first before we dive into it,” said Randy Bowden, a driver at Peninsula.
The key to getting behind the wheel of one of those trucks is having your commercial driver’s license, or CDL.
“It’s not a job [for which] a lot of people can just walk out of the street, fill out the application and get put behind the wheel of a truck,” said Heller. “They do have to go through some extensive training.”
“I did it the long way,” McNeil said. “I read the book a couple of times, got my permit and just started teaching myself how to drive.”
There is a faster way. At IITR Truck Driving School in Creswell, you can get your CDL in four weeks.
“You have to teach them some backing skills, obviously driving skills. There’s also what’s called the pre-trip inspection that the state requires them to pass in order to get their CDL,” said Don Edwards, the school’s recruiter. “We’re still placing about 80 percent of our students, which, with this economy, is still pretty good.”
The program’s speed comes at a cost. Tuition for a truck driving school runs between $4,000 and $6,000. IITR falls right in the middle, charging students $5,000 for the four-week course.
That up-front expense can scare away a lot of would-be drivers. Because the IITR’s course is so short, it can’t qualify for federal grants or aid, such as FAFSA or Pell grants. Instead, the students have to pay out of their own pocket or qualify for a Workforce Investment Act grant, which is less likely after federal budget cuts. If the cost is out of pocket, many trucking companies will reimburse new hires.
“We’re trying to stress to our students: when you graduate our school, if you have a good, clean driving record take care of that driving record and you probably won’t ever be unemployed again,” Edwards said.
“This industry, you pick it. It doesn’t pick you, so you have to want to do it,” said McNeil. “But it’s a good living. It’s a very good living.”