a man sits in an eighteen wheeler truck
Jul 10, 2022
Daily Inter Lake

FVCC Continues to Meet Workforce Needs Through Trucking Program

By Hilary Matheson

When Flathead Valley Community College commercial driver’s license program instructor Bob Arrabito got into trucking he was in it for the long haul.

“Years ago I had a construction company and a trucking company in Reno. I came up here as a contractor,” he said.

When the Great Recession hit, construction slowed down and Arrabito saw the college’s call for establishing a CDL program as one way to meet the need of an influx of unemployed workers who needed job training in new fields. Tied to that influx were large-scale closures such as the Columbia Falls aluminum plant, FVCC CDL instructor Mark Twichel said. The timber industry was also hit hard.

“When everything slowed down and they said they needed somebody I came up and applied,” Arrabito said. “The college just exploded with people needing training.”

That was 15 years ago.

The Occupational Trades Department where the CDL program is housed, works closely with the community to create career and technical education where there is demand, Twichel said. In addition to obtaining a CDL, students may also earn associate of applied science degrees or certificates in other areas of local interest and need such as heavy equipment operation, electronics, welding, fabrication, machining, surveying, firearms technologies and heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration, among others.

THERE REMAINS a need for drivers as employers in all industries face workforce shortages. The CDL program continues to draw interest from people of a variety of ages from 18 to 70 and backgrounds, including people who have never been in a truck or driven a vehicle with a manual transmission Twichel and Arrabito said.

Katie Purcell recently earned her CDL through FVCC to start her working career.

Completing the program varies for students and can take weeks to months depending on their background and experience Twichel and Arrabito said.

“It took me about three months to complete,” Purcell said.

Arrabito estimates students should plan on about four to six weeks depending on experience. Purcell, like many students, learned how to operate a manual transmission for the first time.

“Most of the world today is automatic, but we teach manual so when they get their CDL they can drive anything,” Twichel said, noting that students are prepared to test with the Montana Vehicle Division when they complete the program.

“Every personality is different,” Arrabito added. “Every time we get a person in here we’ve done it for so long we understand how to train them.”

Arrabito said students go on the road as frequently as possible to experience a variety of scenarios and situations to get comfortable driving a roughly 26,000-pound semi truck.

In his 15 years, he says there was only one student that couldn’t handle driving the semi truck because they became overwhelmed when driving in the city.

“You’ve just got to accept it. Just like you’re driving your car through town. There’s a lot of crazy people and once you get in this thing,” Arrabito said, pointing to two of the college-owned semis, “You just can’t stop [like a car can].”

“Invariably, when you go in through town in one of these — someone’s going to take a shot at you — diving in front of you” he added, which is why many companies also spend several weeks training new workers on the expensive equipment.

OVER-THE-ROAD, also known as long-haul, trucking companies may also offer CDL training programs as part of a job contract, however, some incentives to earn it through the community college is that students may qualify for tuition assistance to defray the roughly $3,200 cost and can complete the program while staying in the Flathead for training as opposed to out-of-state.

Wherever a person chooses to obtain a CDL, the group agreed it would quickly pay for itself.

“You’ll get a job pretty quick,” Arrabito said.

“Within a month one of our graduates could be making $60,000 to $70,000 a year plus a $10,000 sign-on bonus,” Twichel added

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states the 2021 median pay for heavy and tractor-trailer drivers as $48,310 per year, or $23.23 per hour. The bureau projects an average of 231,000 openings for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers annually through 2030 as people change occupations or retire.

Staying close to home is what drew retired professional race car driver and restaurateur Bernard Jourdain to obtain a CDL through the community college.

“I can drive anything. I’ve been driving for 60-plus years and I drove from you know, motorcycles to race cars, trucks, trailers — everything — but I never had the license to physically drive them,” Jourdain said.

When he moved to Montana, he wanted to find something to fill up newly freed-up time.

“So I said, ‘You know, what have I been doing all my life? Driving. Let’s get the CDL license,’” he said.

The community college offers two sections per semester, averaging 65 to 70 students total, in its CDL program. CDL students may also obtain an endorsement to drive school buses.

Over 15 years, the program has expanded. The college bought a second semi and began offering a yearlong certification program to operate heavy equipment such as excavators, skip loaders or backhoes.

Locally, there is a variety of available jobs and plenty with sign-on bonuses, Twichel said.

“There’s multiple local companies that previous students of Bob’s and mine work at — Sysco, Evergreen Disposal, Fun Beverage,” Twichel said.

Working locally, he said, allows a person to work roughly eight to 10 hours, and at the end of the day, be able to go home. Purcell said she currently works about 12- to 14-hour days.

“Once you go over-the-road with a big company you could be here today, and in Chicago, two, three days,” Arrabito said.

Twichel said a typical schedule might be three weeks on two weeks off.

“You gotta really want to do that before you go over-the-road,”Arrabito said.

PURCELL WAS interested in driving over-the-road when she started the CDL program at FVCC. That interest stemmed from classes she took in high school and college in power mechanics and diesel mechanics.

“I just like to travel and I like more rugged jobs — more nontraditional work I guess,” Purcell said.

Purcell now works for Kalispell-based LHC Inc. where she does road construction and has gained experience operating an end dump truck. Purcell said she received about two weeks of training on the job, which she advised is a good time for people new to the field to ask questions.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she said. “Everyone is so helpful.”

She said operating semis or heavy machinery takes dedication, confidence and perseverance, to get through times of discouragement when starting a career.

“Some days I feel like I can’t get it,” Purcell, but then she’s encouraged by coworkers and reminds herself, “You’re fine; you’re doing good; you’re learning. Remember, you’re learning.”