Mohammed Keita’s forehead creased in concentration as he carefully checked his rear view mirror. With encouragement from his instructor, Marty Funke, Keita managed to maneuver his tractor-trailer between a set of four orange cones.
Just down the street, a group of about 15 students sat in a classroom at Hirschbach Motor Lines’ Kerper Boulevard facility in Dubuque, taking notes while flipping through copies of an atlas.
“We learn how to read maps and how to plan a trip, how long it will take you to get to (the place) to pick up your load and how far you need to drop it off and where your next load is. going to be,” Traci Kelly said.
She, Keita and their peers are students of Hirschbach’s commercial driver’s license training program. The program, launched about a year ago, has helped the company overcome an ongoing shortage of truckers and prepare new drivers for a life on the road.
“The reason we started doing this was primarily because of labor issues,” said Brian Kohlwes, general counsel and chief risk officer for Hirschbach. “The shortage of truckers has existed for decades.
Hirschbach Chairman Dan Wallace said the COVID-19 pandemic has “amplified” this existing shortage for several reasons. Many drivers have retired from the industry, temporarily or permanently, for reasons of health and age. At the same time, new truckers struggled to get their commercial driver’s licenses, with some state departments and technical schools closed at the start of the pandemic.
“That’s what prompted us to open our own establishment,” Wallace said.
So far, a few hundred students have graduated from the program, and Wallace estimated Hirschbach is adding about 25 students a week.
The 10-week program begins with four to five weeks of classroom study, mechanics and inspection courses, and practice behind the wheel. Hirschbach has about 25 instructors running the program.
As a training ground, Hirschbach leases the former Bowling and Beyond parking lot from the city of Dubuque. This is where Keita perfected his backing technique. Students also ply the roads of Dubuque in one of the company’s 26 designated training trucks.
After completing the initial training, participants return to their home country to receive their CDL, then return to Hirschbach for an additional 200 hours of practice on the road with a certified trucker from Hirschbach’s “train the trainer” program.
“That’s where the real education begins, when they’re on the road with a more experienced driver,” Kohlwes said.
He said that participants do not pay tuition fees in advance. In fact, they are paid around $600 per week during their course, with room and board costs also covered. Upon graduation, students are encouraged to stay in Hirschbach for at least nine months, during which time their tuition fees are gradually deducted from their regular salary.
“In nine months, they are debt free from their tuition fees,” Kohlwes said.
Kelly, of Joliet, Illinois, holds a Class B CDL. This allows him to drive vehicles such as dump trucks and “straight trucks,” or those with a fixed trailer. She enrolled in the Hirschbach program to upgrade that license to a Class A CDL, which will allow her to drive a wider variety of large tractor-trailers.
“I’m going to take my husband and my dog with (me), and we’re going to learn about the United States,” the 53-year-old said.
Trondell Frazier, 40, is also looking to upgrade his Class B license to Class A. A resident of Greensboro, Maryland, he heard about Hirschbach’s program during a casual conversation with a fellow trucker at a laundromat. Automatique.
“All the instructors here are nice and they make sure you know what you’re doing so that when you go out on your own there’s no slip-up,” he said.
Jordan Weaver, 21, of Holy Cross, Iowa, said he looks forward to the travel opportunities that a career in trucking will provide.
In a spiral notebook, Weaver jotted down notes detailing how to read an atlas and track his hours in a driver’s log.
“When we actually start trucking, we’re recording when we’re driving versus when we’re sleeping or charging,” he said. “We learn all the rules and regulations in order to be safe on the road.”
Other transportation companies in the area have partnered with existing CDL schools to recruit and train drivers.
Jon Stenzel is director of training at Foodliner, a trucking division owned by Dubuque-based McCoy Group, which partners with nine CDL programs nationwide.
Each CDL program sends its best students to interview and, if all goes well, to be hired by one of the McCoy Group affiliates, such as Foodliner, Quest Liner and WW Transport. These employees then return to their CDL school for hands-on driver training before launching their careers with the McCoy Group.
Stenzel said the partnership allows novice drivers to gain experience, which often results in a strong retention rate.
“There are more opportunities for drivers now, so they can shop around a bit more, but we’re just trying to use all of our tools that we have,” he said. “…We’ve really seen tremendous loyalty from these people because we give them an opportunity where sometimes no one else does.”
At Tucker Freight Lines in Dubuque, which employs more than 200 truckers, all drivers must have at least two years of experience.
“As a small business, you have a higher risk of hiring drivers with less experience,” said Shuree Behr, director of recruiting and marketing at Tucker Freight Lines.
Behr said Tucker Freight Lines relies on a strong driver referral program, as well as targeted advertising such as Facebook ads, to recruit new drivers.
“It’s probably one of the toughest years in recruiting, but we were very lucky,” she said. “We have a great team in our recruiting department.”
Although Hirschbach officials know that not all of the truckers they train will stay with the company permanently, the program’s retention so far has been promising.
“We really want to be able to grow our own (driver pool) organically, and so far our retention with our students has been really good,” Wallace said. “Further downstream, we would like at least 50% of our weekly drivers to go through our own CDL school.”