Would-be drivers in hot seat

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ARMADA -- In this uncertain economy, Andrew Tanghe is hoping for a career that lasts for the long haul.

So Tanghe, who is unemployed, stopped by an open house Monday sponsored by Baker College's Center for Truck Driving that gave prospective drivers a taste of what it's like to drive a big rig -- from the seat of a high-tech, $150,000 simulator.

The simulator is like an Xbox 360 driving game on steroids. It features three large video screens that serve as a big rig's windows, a realistic instrument panel, driver's seat, steering wheel and gear shift lever.

Turns out it wasn't easy to drive the virtual rig -- Tanghe blew out a tire and drove through a fence.

"I don't want that to ever happen to me for real," said Tanghe, 26, of Casco Township in St. Clair County, who is hoping to sign up for Baker's program.

Interest in truck driving schools like the program offered through Baker College of Port Huron is on the rise, said Mike O'Connell, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association in Washington, D.C.

Dan Kenny, vice president of admissions for Baker, agrees. "There's no doubt the economy is driving interest and enrollment in all of our courses," he said. Baker offers a truck driving program at its campuses in Allen Park, Cadillac, Cass City, Flint and West Branch.

The school offers two truck driving courses each year, one in the spring and one in fall. The school has already signed up 14 students for this year's 20-week-long spring course, he said.

Truck driving appeals to those who are looking for work because it's a good, stable job, O'Connell said.

"The average driver still starts between $38,000 and $40,000 a year with benefits," he said. "It only goes up from there."

"And it's one of the few jobs in America that can't be outsourced," he said.

The sputtering economy has somewhat dampened demand for truck drivers as large freight movements have slowed, but good, experienced drivers can always find work, he said.

"If the economy is functioning at all, anything you buy has moved by truck on average five times," O'Connell said.

"The industry is about 7 percent of the gross national product and largely invisible, except when things aren't there."

New York-based L-3 Link Simulation & Training, which specializes in aircraft simulators, created the simulation machine used for Monday's open house, said Carl Vogler, one of Baker's truck driving instructors. The program has used the machine to train future drivers for the last four years, he said.

A computer enables instructors like Vogler to put a student driver in dozens of different types of trucks and situations. Instructors can configure different shift patterns for the transmissions of everything from a tractor-trailer to a municipal dump truck.

Vogler can make the simulated trip a pleasure drive down the highway on a summer day, or he can make it a jaunt so grueling over icy roads that it'll turn the driver's knuckles white.

Just ask Kevin Dunn, 50, of New Baltimore, who took a buyout from Ford Motor Co. last year and is looking at starting a second career as a truck driver. Vogler put him through the paces and Dunn ended up jackknifing his rig and sliding across an interstate highway.

"I wish I could spend more time on it," he said after a quick trial. "It seemed very realistic. I wish I could get one for my home."