Truckers are in demand

By Janice Podsada

Herald Writer

No boss breathing down your neck, the wide, open road in front of you, and your best friend lolling in the sleeper.

OK, driving a big rig isn’t quite that idyllic: The boss wants you to make up the miles lost at the weigh station, traffic ahead could circle the Earth twice and your ride-along, Rover, needs to use the next rest stop.

On the other hand, long-haul truck drivers say once you’ve developed a taste for the road, you never want to hang up your brake shoes.

While other industries are downsizing or laying off workers, the demand for truck drivers with a commercial license continues to grow. A half-million new truck and trailer drivers will be needed in the next five years, industry sources say.

Some community colleges, such as Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, offer nine-month truck driving courses.

But if you’re on the fast track, private truck driving schools can teach you how to drive, maintain your 10-speed rig and get your license in a little over a month.

Western Pacific Truck School in Everett, which moved to its Highway 99 location a year ago from Kenmore, offers new day and evening classes for up to 18 students every four weeks. Tuition for the five-day a week, eight-hour course costs $4,295 and includes post-graduation job placement help.

"We get a lot of ladies and there’s no age discrimination," said Jim Layne, 57, instructor and campus manager at Western Pacific in Everett.

During the four-week course, which is certified by the Professional Truck Driving Institute, students spend 56 hours in class learning how to conduct the required pre-trip and brake inspection and another 80 hours with an instructor on the road.

"We don’t use simulators," said Todd Bronson, director of admissions.

After a week of studying basic truck mechanics, students climb into the cab and spend 40 hours driving forward and another 40 hours mastering a 70-foot truck trailer combination traveling in reverse.

Long haul trucking

The job: Driving big rigs 2,000 to 3,000 miles a week.

Training: Takes one to nine months.

Tests: Must pass state licensing exam.

Pay: Starts around $25,000 to $30,000.

Perks: You get to bring a partner or a pet.

"Anybody can drive the truck part," Layne said. "It’s driving the trailer so it doesn’t touch the curb or a car and driving backwards."

The trick is to constantly use your mirrors to navigate.

"A truck will come equipped with three mirrors on the left side, and five mirrors on the right." Layne said. "There are so many blind spots a car can hide in."

At the end of the four-week course, students take the on-street test with a state licensing examiner.

Pass, and you’re ready to roll.

Expect to make about $25,000 to $35,000 your first year. Drivers are typically paid by the mile, with beginners starting out at 25 to 30 cents. After three years experience and a clean driving record, you can make 49 to 51 cents a mile. Long haulers drive from 2,000 to 3,000 miles a week.

Drivers say a big selling point is a company’s pet and passenger policies.

Like to bring your loved ones to work? You can’t do it at the office, but long-haul companies often allow drivers to bring a passenger or a pet.

"They’ll leave their wife or husband home, but they won’t leave their dog," instructor Don Wallace said with a laugh.

Wallace and Layne have taught former aerospace workers, welders, receptionists, lumpers (those who unload trucks) and the occasional journalist how to maneuver a fully-loaded 70-foot truck and trailer combination, weighing from 50,0000 to 100,000 pounds.

Michael Howlett of Snohomish, a Navy journalist for 11 years, recently began attending Western Pacific. "I’m looking for something to fall back on," he said.

Isaac Nuez, 41, of Granite Falls, a welder, said he was tired of the layoffs in his trade, and was looking for stability, adding, "I’d like a change of pace."

Jim Burrell, 48, an Everett dock worker, is satisfied with his job, but he’s feeling his age. "I’m tired of doing manual labor," he said.

Guenevere Whipple, 22, of Everett, a medical receptionist, wants take up driving so she can earn a living and see her future husband more than once every five weeks.

"My fiancé is a truck driver. We’re going to become team drivers."

Sleeper teams average about 1,000 miles a day, double the mileage of a single driver.

Whipple intends to add a third member to her team, even though he doesn’t have a license.

"I’m bringing my 4-year-old son, Tremaine, on the road with us. We’re going to home school him on the road for three years."

Students at Western Pacific perfect their skills on eight routes in Snohomish County. Each emphasizes a different set of skills and driving conditions.

Route one, for example, is a lesson in city driving and includes cruising Madison Street and Broadway and Marine View Drive in Everett.

Route two, which winds through Mill Creek, Woodinville and Clearview, is a lesson in how to stop and start on an incline. "It has lots of steep hills," Layne said.

Route three, a north/south trip on Highway 99, from Everett to Lynnwood teaches the art of maneuvering that all important back end in heavy traffic.

Got a grudge against gridlock? Do cars make you curse? Get over it, Layne said.

"There’s no room for road rage in this job. You can’t get mad at these people in cars, they don’t have a clue. They have no idea how long our stopping distances are."

Some drivers prefer local routes, usually 10-hour, five-day-a-week jobs, that have you home with the family in the evenings. Long-haulers, on the other hand, can be out seven or eight days at a stretch.

Skip the motel. A big rig has 500 horses under the hood, but stopped, it’s a snail with a home on top. Trucks today come equipped with a sleeper-berth assembly, the "condo," where drivers can eat, sleep and cook.

Driving a big rig isn’t for everyone, but those who enjoy the job, say once they get rolling, it’s hard to quit the road.

"Now take Smitty over there," said Layne, pointing at one of the school’s instructors. "He’s been running trucks forever."

Dwight Smith, "Smitty," 73, tried to retire after 50 years, but sitting still didn’t sit well. Four years ago he hopped back into the cab to become a driving instructor at Western Pacific.

"Once you get into trucking, you can’t get out, you get addicted to the things," Layne said. "It satisfies the craving to go on the road."

You can call Herald Writer Janice Podsada at 425-339-3029 or send e-mail to podsada@heraldnet.com.

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