Economy Pushing More People To Drive Big Rigs

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Big rigs became a big part of our culture in the 70s. Remember CB radios, Smokey and the Bandit and fuzzbusters? But the image of renegade truckers, running from the cops and working illegally long hours has sure changed.

Now the working conditions are dramatically different. Modern sleeper cabs feel more like motor homes, speeds and hours are tracked by GPS, and the drivers are different, too.

“The economy is driving our students to us,” said Darrell Peterson of the Interstate Truck Driving School in South St. Paul. “There’s no doubt about it.”

His school is coming off its best year, and this year, classes are filling up even faster. The lure is a $45,000 to $50,000 starting salary in a business that actually prefers 40- and 50-somethings, because they aren’t looking to rush home for their kids’ soccer practices.

“We’ve got mortgage brokers, realtors, HVAC people and electricians,” he said. “Just people from the construction trades in general that are looking for a place to go.”

Fifty-eight-year-old Alex Kilpatrick fits the bill. He’s a commercial painter, who’s been laid off again. And if he isn’t called back soon, he wants to be ready to make the change.

“For a guy my age,” he said, “starting over, you’re kind of limited to what you can do.”

Sue and Greg DiMartino of St. Paul worked together on their insulation business, until they got knocked down by the economy and the weather.

“With no snow, no cold, nobody’s doing insulation,” Greg said.

They like going on road trips anyway, so now their grown kids will watch the house and they’ll hit the road together. With each driving the 11-hour limit, they can keep the rig rolling almost 24 hours a day, which is why they’ve already had two job offers, and could get more.

“We want to be together,” said Sue, “so this is our option.”

There are many women at the school, former white collar workers, even private pilots, laid off when the economy turned.

The training is rigorous — 160 hours of classes, five to eight hours a day, five days a week. Learning how the 80,000-pound rigs operate, and how to control a 53-foot trailer and a 10- or 13-speed transmission. But despite the looks and the reputation, this is no longer a tough guy job.

“You don’t have to be a big macho guy to do this,” said Darrell. “Everybody thinks that it’s a big macho deal. It’s a finesse thing.”

So, our own Amelia Santaniello decided to take Darrell at his word, and give it a try. He paired her up with Pat Ackerman, who has 42 years of experience behind the wheel, and a big bold personality.

He showed her how things worked, then let her get behind the wheel.

Amelia said she’s used to driving a stick, but 10 speeds is completely different. And she was really freaked out by what you don’t have: a rear view mirror.

But despite a few herks and jerks, Amelia said she felt pretty comfortable driving around their test course — that is, until they went to the next step, reverse.

Drivers learn three ways to back into a dock. And Amelia struggled with the easiest one. Fortunately, Pat’s patient, because balancing the clutch and the truck’s airbrakes was something else, Amelia said. But once she got straightened out, she pulled it off, and got a surprising grade from her teacher.

“I would say an eight on a scale of one to 10,” said Pat. “Because nobody would even attempt to back that up on the first day. They would just refuse to do it.”

The classes cost $4,000, but most students are pre-hired by long-haul trucking firms. And many of the laid-off students are paying for class by using worker-training funds.

More from Amelia Santaniello
  • Breaker, Breaker

    The Twin Cities 2011 Ice Roads Trucker of The Year..

  • jackactionhero

    My Dad used to hang around Truck Stop bathrooms & showers cruisin for guys..Now I do the same.

    • idtapit

      I used to do the same back in the day, now I just wish I was Frank!!!

  • Jason H

    This report attempts to glamorize and promote the myths that driving schools and large trucking companies want out there in the mainstream. What they don’t tell you is that unlike the video most trucks do not and are not “like rv’s” you don’t have a 50 inch TV and a restroom, you are lucky to grab a shower every day and the hours are much longer than 11 hours a day. Less than 20% of company drivers will make anything close to the $40,000-$60,000 first year salary claimed in the video. All these videos do is push more unqualified and poorly trained people into driving trucks that they honestly are not cut out to drive, it drives the existing wages down and forces more and more qualified, safe, and experienced drivers out because the entry level drivers are willing to drive for next to nothing for compensation. Amelia really dropped the ball on this report as she should have actually interviewed current drivers instead of just the people looking to process students like cattle.

    • CF

      You’re a 100% right Jason. The trucking industry, like a lot of industries, have found a way to access lower cost workers. Replace skill & talent with technology. Its virtually assembly line conditions. Toss in a computer to operate your engine for you, same for the transmission……no need to shift. A lane integrity monitor, a satellite system for 24/7 monitoring by your supervisor, to give you directions, & tell you what to do. You don’t even know how to fill out a log anymore. If it wasn’t for the language requirements the trucking companies would be raiding the meat & poultry industry for their workers…..and some do.

  • Mark

    After two years of unemployment, I also went to a driving school north of the Twin Cities to get my 160-hour certificate. Sad to say, the schooling gave me some knowledge of driving a truck, but really fell short on time IN a truck and hands-on experience. I’m still unable to get a local driving job after completing the course, as almost all companies want applicants to have two years’ experience. I was offered a job driving in the oil fields of North Dakota. What I learned in two weeks of driving a truck there was more than I learned in the 160-hour course. I’ve now been working in the oil fields for nine months, and I agree that you cannot replace experienced drivers with individuals straight out of training courses. It is hard work, but at the same time I enjoy being outside and now own my own tractor. I am still looking for a job in Minneapolis, but the two-year-experience requirement is still a barrier for me.

    • dragqueen

      maybe it’s because you are a union buffoon?

  • Spanky

    Has anybody noticed how great things are since DUMBO took office?

    • The Architect

      Another person who wants to blame their lot in life on Obama?

      My life has never been better than in the last 2 years, and my income has never been higher. How about yours?

      • sad but true

        No kidding bud, too many people whining about ” I didn’t get this or I didn’t get that ” my income is up 9.4% from 2011 to 2010. I got mine, the lazy folk need to ” go get there’s”

  • Spanky

    CCO running another fluff storty to cover for DUMBO’s great work.

  • Rufus Larkin

    Is would be good profession for homeless because they can live in truck cabin.

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