BAINBRIDGE — Mark Smith used to work on cars until he was laid off some time ago.
Looking to earn a good wage and fulfill a boyhood dream, he went back to school to be a commercial truck driver.
“I’ve wanted to do it since I was 15 years old,” the Elkton man, now 27, said. “I just like driving big trucks and being on the road.”
Smith was one of a few dozen students who partook in an “audition” at Cecil College’s Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) Training Center near Port Deposit on Thursday. On hand were numerous recruiters from regional trucking companies looking for the next batch of employees.
The college program, which started in 1984, packs in 300 hours of instruction over eight weeks, either through Monday-Friday classes or evening and weekend classes. It contains a mix of textbook instruction as well as behind-the-wheel training. Students also learn self-defense driving while practicing driving on a simulator.
On Thursday, the program’s 27 students demonstrated their mastery of the three skills needed to pass the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration’s CDL test: a 100-foot straight-line backup, an off-side alley backup and a parallel park.
“We also teach students an alley dock even though it isn’t on the Maryland test because every CDL driver will need to know how to back down an alley,” said Tina Durborow, Cecil College director of transportation training. “We try to go above and beyond to make sure the students are coming out with good foundation skills.”
The students also got a chance to talk one-on-one with recruiters and head out on a “road test,” displaying their driving skills around the 5 miles of roads the college maintains on the former Bainbridge U.S. Naval Training Center. Next week, the students will be taking their state licensure tests, Durborow said.
David Schirling, Cecil College coordinator of commercial driver’s license training, added that upon applying to a trucking company, an applicant would be required to show where they went to school and where they earned their CDL license. They then would be required to conduct a road test similar to the ones done by students Thursday.
If hired, an employee would then typically undergo six to eight weeks of additional training by the company to fulfill insurance requirements. In that period, they would apprentice with an established driver and eventually be tested on their knowledge on the truck used by and policy of the company. Once driving on their own, drivers can earn an average salary of $60,000 a year, Schirling said.
Durborow said the recruitment fair is a benefit of the program’s EARN grant, given by the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation to foster workforce development.
Numerous companies, including Performance Food Group, Frito-Lay, Gordon Food Service, Burris Logistics and United Roads, sent recruiters to the “audition” on Thursday afternoon. Durborow noted that several of the companies had never hired a Cecil College grad while others had hired many.
Prior to the “audition” program, the CDL training program would host a recruitment fair in the classroom where recruiters could talk about their company, Durborow said. Bringing them to the field, however, provide recruiters with a different look at the students, she added.
Steve Koch, general manager of Performance Food Group in Elkton, agreed with Duborow.
“I think it is important to be in front of them in the classroom, but it is also important to get them in our trucks,” he said. “I always tend to believe that people are more interactive in a setting like this.”
Koch said it is harder and harder to find qualified applicants for trucking positions, noting he has numerous open positions for drivers at PFG, which delivers to Cracker Barrel restaurants and other customers in the region. He said his company offers a good wage and a schedule that includes weekends off as well as one weekday. Drivers are on the road for 24 to 26 hours in teams. Nearly 20 percent of PFG’s drivers are Cecil College graduates and Koch said he was interested in pursuing several more of the upcoming graduates.
“Even if we can get a student out of school with no experience, I can train and mold them to be a good food service driver,” he said. “The challenge of hiring is a combination of driving, the physical nature of unloading a truck and the hours included.”
Andrew Evans, a recruiter for Burris Logistics in Elkton, said he was glad to have an opportunity to talk with students in the field Thursday.
“We deliver to 69 BJ Wholesale Clubs in the Mid-Atlantic region with no-touch freight, and all of our drivers are home at the end of the day,” he said. “So we have a lot of opportunities.”
Evans said his office had 10 open positions with drivers with experience.
“This is the first time that we’re looking to take on a trainee from a driving school,” he said, noting that Burris’ training period is 24-weeks long. “We’ve been affiliated with the college in the past through graduates working at the company though.”
Evans said he spoke with a student Thursday that he actually already knew.
“He delivered pizzas to Burris in the past, so some of our employees know him well,” he said.
The college program’s students come from a variety of backgrounds and motivaitons to hit the open road.
Vennis Watson, 35, of Aberdeen, previously worked as a self-employed car hauler, but changing transportation regulations forced him to seek a CDL. He said that he found the college program very helpful in his pursuit of getting back on the road.
“The teachers really take the time to get you to where you need to be,” he said. “They are very hands on.”
Thursday’s program had Watson thinking about possibly working for someone else, as the wages offered were good and the companies’ trucks were nice.
“The truck loan, insurance and fuel costs would add up fast,” Watson said of going back on his own, noting that he was interested in joining United Roads or Burris.
Floretta Stanford, of North East, said she has always wanted to drive a truck, but she put her career aspirations on hold as she raised her children. Now that they are both in college, she went back to school.
“For me, it’s the whole idea of being able to see different places and the challenge of driving the truck,” she said, noting that she is interested in driving long-haul. “Cecil College was so helpful in getting me signed up and walking me through the program.”
Charles Njoroge, of Elkton, said he was completing the college’s transportation and logistics program in addition to the CDL program. He wants to be the “full package.”
“It has been my desire to be a truck driver, because you get to see new places while getting paid,” he said. “I’ve been a builder, carpenter and car dealer, but I want to see the open road.”