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Economy Pushing More People To Drive Big Rigs

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(credit: CBS) Amelia Santaniello
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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.

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