How suburban colleges are trying to meet surging demand for truck drivers

  • Eagle Training Services student John Henning of Marengo listens to truck driving instructor Ines Ribic during a session in Crystal Lake. The service trains students from McHenry County College and Harper College.

      Eagle Training Services student John Henning of Marengo listens to truck driving instructor Ines Ribic during a session in Crystal Lake. The service trains students from McHenry County College and Harper College. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin Community College President David Sam takes the wheel of a simulator used in the college's truck driving program. Program director Don Anderson explains how it works.

    Elgin Community College President David Sam takes the wheel of a simulator used in the college's truck driving program. Program director Don Anderson explains how it works. Courtesy of Elgin Community College

  • Eagle Training Services instructor Ines Ribic, right, tell the driver to stop during a session in Crystal Lake.

      Eagle Training Services instructor Ines Ribic, right, tell the driver to stop during a session in Crystal Lake. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • John Henning of Marengo is learning to be a truck driver through the Eagle Training Services in Crystal Lake.

      John Henning of Marengo is learning to be a truck driver through the Eagle Training Services in Crystal Lake. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Eagle Training Services truck driving school in Crystal Lake trains students from McHenry County College and Harper College.

      Eagle Training Services truck driving school in Crystal Lake trains students from McHenry County College and Harper College. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 12/24/2021 6:50 PM

The need for qualified truck drivers has created a run on courses at suburban community colleges and an opportunity for students to quickly find good-paying jobs.

While the number of students enrolling won't solve an acute national shortage, educators say truck driving offers a path to those seeking to change their situation in a matter of weeks.

 

"It's a students' market of where they want to go and work," said Don Anderson, director of the truck driving program at Elgin Community College.

ECC has offered its course since the mid-1980s. Some companies have recruited its students for years, but opportunities have surged recently, Anderson said.

"I'm getting calls from companies I've never dealt with before -- local companies," he said. "Now I'll have more people coming into the class trying to get these students to work for them than I have students."

The just completed class was full and ECC is considering adding another section, Anderson said.

Jobs vary from traditional long-haul to local pickup/delivery companies with drivers home every night, said Jeffrey Clark, managing partner of Crystal Lake-based Eagle Training Services. The company provides entry-level commercial driver's license training for Harper and McHenry County colleges, among other entities.

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"Every one of our corporate clients has trucks parked waiting for drivers," Clark said.

Competition has led to pay increases, signing bonuses and other incentives. Jobs that had paid $17 an hour to start now are offering $30 an hour, Anderson said.

Matt Hart, executive director of the Illinois Trucking Association, says 92% of its 500 member companies in Illinois report a shortage of drivers,

"I wish tomorrow I could hire 100 drivers," said Senad Mujkic, owner of BDJ Trucking, headquartered in Schaumburg. The general freight carrier operates in 48 states. Company drivers on average earn $82,000 a year, according to BDJ's website.

Hart said 90% of trucking association members have raised pay, with half increasing compensation 8% or more. Local courses help "a little bit," but the driver shortage, which stands at 80,000 in the U.S., is getting worse, he said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Opportunities abound, but the cost of truck driving courses can be a barrier. At ECC, one of the only schools in northern Illinois with a wraparound truck simulator, the fee is $4,515.

At the College of Lake County, an anonymous supporter of technically oriented careers recently donated $110,000 for 25 full scholarships, and marketing for the truck driving program starting in January.

"These scholarships can help people earn a family-sustaining wage without a formal education in a short period of time," said Laura Asbury, manager of professional development.

The course takes about eight to 12 weeks to complete and costs $4,100. As in other programs, students during the first week get classroom instruction to pass a state CDL permit exam.

A required drug test is followed by behind-the-wheel and other training in advance of the state exams. According to CLC, 365 students have taken the program since it began in 2007.

"It was a twofer -- to get students employed and to address the employment needs of Lake County," said Kurt Peterson, executive director of the CLC Foundation. "We're ready to go."

According to CLC, regional jobs for those with CDL-A licenses are expected to increase 7% by 2025, with nearly 6,000 of those in Lake County alone. CDL-A license holders can drive anything on the street, from a semitrailer to box delivery trucks, except for a passenger or school bus, Anderson said.

The College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn launched its CDL program in 2012, said Jennifer Duda, senior manager of marketing and communications. The college has contacts at more than 100 companies interested in hiring recent and former students from the program, she said.

Harper College in Palatine also has seen an increase in inquiries for the truck driving program and is on track to more than double enrollments, according to Cristina Willard, manager of continuing professional education for career and technical programs.

"We've opened twice as many sections of the course, so classes will start monthly for the spring 2022 semester and possibly beyond to meet the need for training," she said.

Harper offers scholarships for anyone who has been hurt financially by COVID-19, she said.

Jasmin Jurado of Palatine is taking the course through Harper. She was among the students training Tuesday afternoon in Eagle's parking lot.

The former dialysis technician said she is switching careers and is "keeping my options open."

"We all have to start somewhere," she said.

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