At Metro CC, technology revs up truckers

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Posted: Friday, May 17, 2013 12:00 am

After her last child turned 20 years old, Susan Farmer decided it was time to trade her desk job as a corporate computer technician for the on-the-road, behind-the-wheel career she'd always wanted: truck driver.

“I'm just ready to run away, see the country,” said the 52-year-old mother of four grown children.

Earlier this month, Farmer was one of about 20 graduates of Metropolitan Community College's Commercial Driver's License truck-driving program. Among the graduates? Two former Hostess drivers who lost their jobs when the Twinkie maker went bankrupt and closed.

The Metro CDL program that started in 2005 with one instructor and four students today employs two full-time faculty and five part-time CDL road trainers to teach about 20 students each quarter.

And now Metro is implementing new technology in the classroom and on the road.

Metro is the only public trucking school in Nebraska and one of a handful in the nation to install OmniTracs in-truck touchscreen electronic onboard recorders that track hours of service, aid with navigation and send real-time performance information like vehicle inspection, speed and hard-braking events to the instructors via email. The college has also introduced in-classroom tablets to help students readily look up rules and regulations.

“Technology has taken over transportation,” said Darryl Partner, a truck-driving instructor at Metro.

Purchased with the help of a U.S. Department of Labor grant, the technology is part of $2.7 million in funding for a statewide workforce training initiative called trans*IT: Transforming Industry Training that involves all Nebraska community colleges, with Metro taking the lead. The quarter between March and May was the first time Metro used the purchased technology.

The grant aims to build “a ready Nebraska workforce and a strengthened transportation sector” by targeting programs for truck drivers, logisticians, aviation mechanics, welders, HVAC-R (heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration) technicians and transportation, distribution- and logistics-related entrepreneurs, such as people who open a trucking company.

Not part of this grant, Metro for several years has also used a truck driving simulator that at first glance appears to be an arcade game but serves as a classroom tool to allow students to drive, shift and back their way through snowstorms, wind storms and other potential events while on the road.

The school says the efforts to bolster technology are to better prepare a sorely needed trucking industry workforce.

“We're helping,” said Rick Sandvig, a Metro truck-driving instructor. The college has produced more than 450 driver graduates since its inaugural class eight years ago.

Estimates by the American Trucking Associations suggest that the industry could be short up to 239,000 truck drivers in 20 years. Currently, the industry needs 20,000 to 25,000 drivers in the truckload sector, and that's a figure the group predicts will only inch higher as the economy strengthens.

Introducing technology early for students will help them comply with regulations, said Larry Johnson, president of the Nebraska Trucking Association. Electronic logs, for example, are expected to be mandated by federal law this year to replace paper-based logs.

Johnson said Metro's innovative truck-driving approach will work in favor of the students and the companies looking to hire Metro's students.

“That will save companies time and training on the job for those technologies,” he said of introducing technology early. “It's a great value-added proposition that Metro's trying to take the lead on.”

Metro's program, which was originally at Metro's South Omaha campus, today is housed at the college's more spacious Applied Technology Center in northwest Omaha at 10407 State St. alongside the school's diesel technology, utility line technology, auto collision technology and construction technology programs. Metro's CDL offering differs from private trucking schools in that it's longer and, because the college is publicly funded, the tuition is less expensive.

Metro's truck-driving program is one of the school's shortest, said Bill Owen, Metro's associate vice president for academic affairs, which makes it attractive to potential students.

Students can come out of an eight-week program “ready to work,” Owen said.

Such was the case for David Neumann, who after working as a driver for Hostess for 25 years delivering baked goods, was forced to find other work. Hostess Brands went bankrupt and closed in November, displacing about 43 employees locally, including Neumann, of about 18,000 workers across the country.

That left Neumann, 52, at a crossroads. As a Hostess employee, he was required to have a Class B CDL to drive his large delivery vehicle. But in looking for jobs post-Hostess, Neumann found that because he didn't have a Class A CDL to operate massive commercial trucks, his driving options were limited.

So, wanting to maximize his job opportunities as a driver, he worked with the Teamsters Local Union 554 in Omaha and the Nebraska Department of Labor's Rapid Response program in December to sign up for Metro's spring classes to obtain the Class A CDL.

Kim Quick, president of Teamsters Local Union 554 in Omaha, said many Hostess drivers sought more education or found work, but others are still trying to find jobs, often seeking ones outside retail sales and delivery.

“Some people have relocated,” he said. “That's what happens in those situations.”

Last month, after weeks of classes and just a few days before graduation, Neumann won the pre-trip inspection portion of the school's CDL student truck driving championship. He owed that success to the thorough nature of Metro's program.

“Here, you get a lot of time behind the wheel,” Neumann said, noting he spent 273 hours at the college, with 72 hours driving. “If you're going to be a truck driver, it's about being behind the wheel.”

But even after all that drive time, Neumann has decided he doesn't want to continue truck driving, at least for now. The exposure to classes and learning new things has drawn him to enroll in Metro's diesel tech program. He'll finish in two years with an associates degree, if he enrolls as a full-time student.

Partner and Sandvig said it's common to see students like Neumann arrive at the program to earn their CDL, then move on to other academic programs or take other jobs within the trucking industry. That's not all bad, they said.

Delivering freight, Partner said, doesn't have to be the end of it because the industry is needing all kinds of workers, from people in logistics, or supply-chain management, to distribution.

Still, Metro estimates about 90 percent of students land jobs in the transportation industry following graduation, most of them as drivers. Sandvig calls the driving program another way Metro can help the community because if there are not enough drivers, consumers could start to notice higher prices at the store.

For Farmer, she can't wait to get out on the road, use what she's learned and do her part in helping the shortage problem. She's going through orientation this week with Crete Carrier Corp., has placed her bills on auto-pay and has arranged for her son to oversee her house while she's gone on long trips.

Farmer is most looking forward to a job that takes her out into the world from behind a desk where she spent so many years.

“Sitting up in the diesel,” she said, “I can see everything.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1192, emily.nohr@owh.com

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