Unemployment may remain high in many job sectors, but not in commercial truck driving.
In fact, aspiring truckers often receive job offers before completing a comprehensive CDL program at Northeast Technical Institute, according to Career Services Administrator Cory Thibodeau.
“Right now there are 400,000-plus openings for CDLs” nationwide, he said, referring to the “Commercial Driver’s License” acronym that many in the trucking industry also equate with “commercial trucker.” Companies compete for experienced drivers with enviable safety records, and “the numbers of older drivers who are retiring is going up,” so “this is a good time to begin a career as a truck driver,” he said.
At Northeast Technical Institute in Bangor and Scarborough, aspiring truckers receive “intensive hands-on training” while participating in a five-week, 200-hour CDL program, Thibodeau said. “It’s accelerated training. Students can come in and in five weeks’ time go for their [CDL] license.”
To accommodate students who work during the week, a part-time course spread across 10 weekends is offered at NTI in Scarborough.
With their classes running from 7 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Monday-Thursday, students enrolled in the five-week CDL program initially spend 78 hours (two weeks) “in the classroom with our CDL instructors,” Thibodeau said. Among subjects taught are keeping accurate log books, truck-driving safety, and driver professionalism; associates from the Maine Railroad Association teach students how to approach and cross railroad crossings.
Students also learn how to develop effective resumes, how to contact prospective employers, and how to interview effectively with them. “Career building is an important service we offer our students,” Thibodeau said.
From the classroom, students shift to an NTI yard and spend 73 hours there learning “basic yard maneuvers, getting in the trucks and doing alley parking,” Thibodeau said. By now each student has obtained a state permit to train with a licensed CDL instructor, who “assumes every student is not familiar with a stick shift,” he said.
At NTI’s Bangor campus, students train with either Robert Daigle or Michael Francis, the two licensed CDL instructors. Daigle joined NTI nine years; a former military trainer, Francis joined the company in 2002.
At NTI’s yard on the Coldbrook Road in Hampden, students learn how to steer a big rig, typically a Kenworth, Mack, or White tractor combined with a 40- or 45-foot big trailer. “Before going out [to train] on the road, a student must demonstrate proficiency in the yard,” Thibodeau said.
Actual road driving encompasses 23 hours and takes students and their instructors on local roads and highways, including Interstate 95. “They drive different equipment,” Thibodeau said, referring to CDL students.
“We try to give them exposure to everything we can because they never know what they’re going to be driving for equipment,” he said.
Students also spend 26 hours in a laboratory held at the Hampden yard. During the lab, students learn how to perform pre-trip inspections and observe what other students and the instructors are doing.
After completing the CDL program, students can take the state’s comprehensive CDL test in Bangor; NTI provides the truck and trailer. If a student fails the state-mandated road test, NTI instructors work with that student to develop the requisite driving skills to pass the test.
“We are committed to our students successfully passing our [CDL] program and becoming licensed drivers,” Thibodeau said.
A student seeking a hazardous materials (hazmat) endorsement for a CDL must also pass a separate state test.
Thibodeau indicated that “a typical [CDL] class” has six to 10 students. Northeast Technical Institute does not accept every applicant; “our admissions’ criteria match our partners’ placement criteria,” he said, explaining that NTI has “partnered with numerous companies throughout the industry” to “bring recruiters” to Bangor and Scarborough “and speak to the CDL classes.”
Among the freight carriers collaborating with NTI are Central Maine Transport, H.O. Wolding, Schneider National Inc., and Werner Enterprises. As with freight carriers across the country, these companies review a driver applicant’s criminal history, job history, health history, and driving record. Different factors can disqualify a job applicant; similar factors can disqualify applicants for NTI’s CDL program, too.
According to Thibodeau, NTI — which is “the only nationally accredited trucking school in Maine” — has no shortage of CDL program applicants. “A lot of them have wanted to drive the big rigs,” he said. “A lot of guys come here after losing their jobs in the construction trades or in white-collar jobs.
“They know that pay and benefits are good at many trucking companies,” Thibodeau said. Some freight carriers offer full tuition reimbursement for NTI graduates who join those firms and stay with them for a specific time period.
Women currently comprise 5-8 percent of CDL program students; NTI would like to see more women train for driving jobs, Thibodeau said.
With NTI and its CDL program approved under the GI Bill, “more veterans are signing up,” he said. “We tend to get more mature students. They’re dead serious about completing the program and getting a job.”
The demand is so strong for CDL drivers that freight carriers contact students before they graduate. “The majority of our students have job offers by the mid-point of their classes,” Thibodeau said. In the last CDL program, “one student had 11 pre-hires (job offers),” he said.
“We’re not only placing entry-level drivers; we’re placing experienced drivers,” Thibodeau said.