Shifting Gears: Valley sees increase in truck-driving school applicants

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GOSHEN — Backing up a semitrailer isn't a simple task, particularly for somebody just learning to drive a big rig.

That was apparent from the stressed look on 23-year-old Derrick Holt's face recently as he tried to back up into a parking space while his driving instructor watched.

Holt, of Exeter, is a student at Proteus Inc.'s truck-driving school in Visalia, where he is one of a growing number of people across the country trying to start careers as truck drivers.

Although no figures are available, Mike O'Connell, executive director and legal counsel for the Commercial Vehicle Training Association in Washington, D.C., said operators of just about all 180 trucking schools his organization represents have reported jumps in enrollments and people interested in driver training during the past 6 to 12 months.

The economy seems to be driving the trend. Many of those wanting to enter the trucking field have lost their jobs and hope trucking will offer immediate and possibly better career opportunities than their old occupations.

For his part, Holt is confident trucking will do considerably more for him financially than his current job as a fast-food worker.

"I want to buy a house in the future," he said as he steered 30,000 pounds of truck and trailer into the narrow parking space set up in a dirt lot behind the Proteus distribution center in Goshen, where the truck school is located.

Proteus operates a second truck-driving school in Delano and has plans to open another later this year in Fresno.

"It's a good, secure living," said Holt, whose father drives a truck. "It's definitely a step up."

Not an easy job

It's just not easy, particularly when you're just learning, he added.

"When you turn right, you're going left. When you're turning left, you're going right. It's pretty confusing after awhile," Holt said as he drove, with the truck jerking as it braked, rolled back, braked and rolled back repeatedly into the narrow parking space.

Outside the truck, Francisco Rivera his instructor and a 20-year truck- driving veteran used hand signals and verbal directions to help his student.

"You'll get it! Back up slowly," he called to Holt. "All the way to your left! You've got this one!"

And a few moments later, Holt was in the parking space and letting out a long breath of relief.

But as difficult as the training can be, he said getting his Class-A truck driving license will be worth it, as did other students in the class.

They include Vilmer B. Caniedo, 50, of Orosi, who has worked as a field hand for years. He got his truck-driving license years ago but never used it as farm jobs became available.

But he's heard the local grape harvest will be light this season, which could mean less work for him and his wife, who also works picking fruit. And with the prospect of his making less than his usual $7,000 to $8,000-a-year pay, ‘™¯Caniedo a native Filipino who speaks limited English ' said truck drivers he's spoken to on farms and a friend who drives a truck urged him to give trucking a try and take a refresher course to regain his Class-A license.

Phon Vongsa, 38, is hoping a Class-A license will get him back to work.

He was laid off a year-and-a-half ago from his job in San Jose operating a silk screen printing machine, and three months ago he moved with his wife and two children to Visalia, where he has relatives.

"It's hard to find a job," Vongsa said, adding that besides working again, he's also looking forward to trying a new career that will let him see the country.

More enrolling in classes

Officials operating truck-driving schools at Proteus, College of the Sequoias and the Advanced Career Institute ›which runs private trucking schools in Visalia, Porterville and Fresno ' report that more people are trying to join their programs, many after losing jobs.

At ACI, that's about 40 percent of the trainees, compared with about 15 to 20 percent a year ago, said Barry Bither, the business' president.

ACI also provides the trucks and instructors for COS' two-year-old truck- driving instruction program.

Instructors at Proteus estimated the ratio of students who have lost their jobs is about 80 to 90 percent. It's about the same at COS, said Larry Dutto, dean of academic services specializing in career technical (vocational) education.

"We kind of tapered off a little bit [in enrollment] in January and February, but right now the course is full," he said.

Rivera said he's got a three-month waiting list for driving classes at Proteus.

Classes for Proteus, COS and ACI all cost about $3,000, though the college can offer financial assistance and Proteus can waive the fees entirely, in some cases.

Classes are held five days a week, usually eight hours a day and can last four to six weeks at ACI, six weeks at Proteus and 16 weeks at COS, which requires the extra time so students can receive college credit toward degrees, Dutto said.

Reasons behind choice

So why are so many people flocking to truck-driving schools?

Just take a look at the newspaper want ads, said Ulysses Garcia, 32, of Hanford, who was laid off from his construction job after the poor economy slowed the industry, so he enrolled in Proteus' trucking program.

"The jobs you see there are [mostly] for nurses and truck drivers," he said.

This despite the recession triggering a nationwide decline in demand for trucking services as lower consumer spending has reduced the amount of goods transported.

"There has been a slowdown," O'Connell said. "And there's a slight slowdown in hiring truck drivers, but there is a lot of turnover among the 3 million long-haul truck drivers."

In addition, large numbers of goods still have to be moved, despite the slow economy, "and those jobs can never be outsourced," O'Connell said.

So even when the economy turns bad, trucking jobs are available and there usually is a jump in the number of people getting into the trucking field, he said.

"Everywhere I go and I stop to take a break, or at the DMV, there are more people stopping me to ask about this profession" after seeing the Proteus trucking school signs on the side of the truck and trailer, said Daniel Rangel, another truck-driving instructor.

And since May, he added, the number of calls to Proteus from people inquiring about or signing up for the truck school have gone up about 25 percent.

Most are people who have been laid off, Rangel said.

"People are unemployed. ... And people are interested in making what they used to make in jobs," he said, noting that seasoned drivers can make up to $80,000 a year while new drivers can make about $600 to $1,200 per week.

Still, some new truck drivers may have difficulty finding jobs right away, Rangel and Rivera said, noting that there are a lot of experienced truckers available because of the economic slowdown, so farmers and other agricultural businesses in this area tend to hire them first over newly licensed truck drivers.

But once the economy improves and increased spending results in more goods needing to be moved, Rangel said people who get their licenses now should be in good positions to get some of that work.