Running on Empty

Truck firms are so desperate for drivers that just about anybody can get behind the wheel

The former home of Mt. Olive Bank, and more recently a furniture store, is built like a bomb shelter, anchored by two solid feet of concrete above a giant iron vault on North Union Boulevard. Today it's the St. Louis branch of Nu-Way Truck Driver Training Centers.

The students are largely middle-aged, unemployed, yearning for a fresh start. Some have come from distant Midwestern burgs, others from areas decimated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, or from downtown homeless shelters.

When the days turn cold, aspiring truck drivers wait patiently outside on crumbling blue and orange chairs, warming their hands above a fire raging in a black trash drum. When called, they climb aboard Volvo-brand tractors attached to 48-foot trailers, ignoring expired license tags and dangling weather stripping, and navigate orange cones scattered throughout the dirt training yard.

On the road again: Nu-Way student Danny Peters
Jennifer Silverberg
On the road again: Nu-Way student Danny Peters
Jennifer Silverberg

Inside, a crowd of twenty new students — "Class of Three Weeks from Now" — suck on plastic bottles of Mr. Pibb and Mountain Dew. The grungy, windowless classroom is adorned with posters containing such messages as "America Needs You" and "Take Care of Yourself on the Road!"

Commanding their rapt attention is Nu-Way regional vice president Vern Fuller, looking dapper in a red tie and blue suit, an American flag on his lapel.

"I get asked on a regular basis: 'Vern, am I too old to get into trucking?' [And I say] 'Are you kidding?'" Fuller glances at the racially mixed student body, many of whom are clad in flannel, jeans and boots, and adds, "The industry loves maturity. One of the biggest complaints I've had from our graduates is, 'I don't know what to do with the money I make.'"

A financial planner from Edward Jones will visit soon to teach them about 401(k)s and tips on how to play the stock market. And when their three-week training is complete, Fuller crows, they'll practically have to beat recruiters back with a stick. "A typical student gets between three and six pre-hire offers, although I've heard of someone getting nineteen."

Nu-Way is less than two years old but already has minted its share of success stories, including 41-year-old Daniel Brand. With a wide smile revealing his almost-toothless gums, Brand's life was a mess before entering the school. After being laid off in 2003 from a job slinging franks and sodas at Kansas City International Airport, he returned, penniless, to his native St. Louis. When he wasn't crashing at relatives' pads, the former army man slept at the Sunshine Mission and the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center.

Through word of mouth, Brand found out about a federal grant for homeless veterans, and after a short employment course at St. Patrick's Center, the downtown homeless-services agency paid Brand's $3,000 Nu-Way enrollment — money he'll never have to pay back.

"It was my golden ticket," says Brand.

Brand now earns upward of $30,000 a year piloting an eighteen-wheeler for Phoenix-based Swift Transportation — one of the largest trucking companies in the nation — from the Florida seaside to the mountains of Oregon. The soup kitchens have given way to all-you-can-eat truck-stop buffets.

Brand's fable-like ascent isn't unusual. Because of increased post-9/11 regulations, an exploding hauling demand and a slew of retirements, the industry faces the greatest driver shortfall in its history. And so, yes, even the homeless are welcome. Some 20,000 drivers are needed nationwide this year, and that number is expected to triple by the end of the decade.

"We used to not hire drivers unless they were experienced, but the pool of qualified drivers has dwindled to the point that everyone's fighting for them," observes Bucky Irwin, a recruiter for Paschall Truck Lines, a Murray, Kentucky-based company that recently began hiring driver-school graduates for the first time in its 50-year history.

The average graduate, says Fuller, will make $35,000 to $45,000 a year and receive full benefits. "I don't know anything else in America you can do in 18 to 21 days, and walk out with that type of gainful employment."

Still, many industry analysts worry that three weeks of training does not a trucker make, saying programs — at bare minimum — should include at least two additional weeks of on-the-job apprenticeship.

"Most of us in the industry agree that that is not the way to train a driver," says Eric Harley, co-host of The Midnight Trucking Radio Network, a nationally syndicated trucking talk show. "Three weeks is not enough time to prepare a driver for that kind of lifestyle. We need to do a more thorough job getting these people trained — not only to operate that huge machine, but how to deal with everything on the road."

"There are a lot of [three-week] trucking schools that are out to generate as much revenue as they can based on the need, and they're not supplying quality," says Duff Swain, president of the Trincon Group, a transportation consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio. "I would compare them to diploma mills."

Bucky Erwin's rich Kentucky twang is on display when he spins phrases like: "I've had my head up my butt for the last few days," or, "Drivers tell me they live in a box, piss on tires and chase cars." With a thick white beard and round, ruddy face, he looks like a Southern-fried Santa Claus, apropos for his role recruiting drivers.

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