Meeting the needs of the trucking industry

Published 1:00 pm Saturday, February 24, 2024

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Riverland Community College in Albert Lea is helping lessen the gap in the truck-driving industry in the region through its semester-long program and other specialized training.

The program is made possible through a collaboration with several area partners that allows students to train on real-life equipment and get an inside peek at life in the industry.

The Riverland program moved to the Albert Lea campus in 2020 from Austin after big advancements to prepare for the program, including widening the curbs and roads within the campus and building a truck-driving range. There, students can learn different parking maneuvers with real lines and dimensions that they may encounter in the real world.

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According to the American Trucking Association, the nation is short 80,000 drivers nationwide — and 8,000 short in Minnesota alone, said Jonathan Rymer, who is an instructor and the director of the program.

“People for whatever reason, they don’t look at truck driving as the career of first choice,” Rymer said. “I think people have the misconception that if I drive a truck, I have to drive from here to California, and I’m never going to see my family but maybe once a month.”

While there are over-the-road truck jobs in which drivers are gone for long periods of time, the truth is nowadays 75% of people in the industry can get a job where they’re home every day, he said.

“When I started in the ’90s, you’d be lucky if you could get something regional,” said Rymer, who started driving in 1997 and then drove over-the-road for a company called KLLM out of Mississippi and with the private fleet for Dupont and ConocoPhillips before eventually delivering fire trucks. He has logged 3 million miles driving all types of vehicles and has taught the class for 13 years.

Rymer said he thinks things are only going to get more favorable for drivers in the future as the need continues to rise.

Tyler Allis, CDL navigator in the truck driving program, said the industry is at an interesting crossroads right now, where consumers don’t have patience for shipping and next-day shipping continues to get more and more popular.

“The freight industry can’t slow down,” said Allis, who grew up running equipment with his family on their farm, got his class A license in 2018 and worked for Norsemen’s Specialized for four years before coming to the school. “If you look at it from that point, there needs to be more over-the-road, more transportation. … It’s a very interesting industry to be in.”

Riverland’s semester-long course lasts three months. On most days, students report at 8 a.m. and start out in the classroom for a couple hours with discussions and videos, before heading outdoors to the range and working with the trucks and trailers.

Rymer said he essentially has a dispatch board that shows all of the college’s equipment and where each student is assigned.

The program has five day cabs, eight sleeper trucks, a snow plow, a cement mixer and two school buses that the students train on.

“Something that’s different with this program than what you typically see is we do train on real-world equipment,” Allis said. “We feel this is where our students are going to go work in a vehicle like that so might as well be training on it.”

That’s where the industry partners get involved. In addition to learning on the equipment from the actual partners, students get to visit the companies, and there has been a lot of success with getting drivers placed for jobs with one of the program partners.

Students, who have a commercial learner’s permit, train on both loaded and empty trailers, and also haul things for Riverland between campuses or other locations. Students cannot operate without a CDL holder in the passenger seat, and Rymer said they try to find retirees who can help for this purpose, many of whom work varying schedules.

Allis said while it’s not required, it is encouraged for students to train and test on manual transmission vehicles.

“If they train and test on a manual, they can drive anything,” he said.

They train people in trip planning and in using paper maps, as GPS systems on cell phones are often set up for cars, not semis. A segment of the class also deals with lifestyles, so students can learn more about the lifestyles they may encounter in the different areas of truck driving.

The program is one of only three credit-based semester-long programs in the state, next to programs at Minnesota State College Southeast in Winona and Alexandria Technical & Community College in Alexandria.

The number of colleges offering a similar program has decreased over the years, as programs can be expensive and need a large space. Rymer said Riverland’s industry partners have helped make the program feasible.

In addition to the three-month long training program, the college also provides condensed training for people who want to achieve certain endorsements, such as a hazardous materials endorsement, a tanker endorsement, a doubles and triple trailer endorsement, or to drive a passenger vehicle like a Coach bus or a school bus.

While they can be achieved separately, the semester-long course covers them all.

“Our hope is that all of our students who graduate from the semester-long program have all of the endorsements,” Rymer said. “We think that by getting people trained on a variety of things, they’d never have to come back to school.”

As their life changes, and they want to drive a different type of vehicle, they will already have the training needed.

The men encouraged people interested in learning more about the program to contact them. There are often financial opportunities to help pay for tuition, and several preliminary steps must be taken before they can start the class.