A partnership between TexAmericas Center and Texarkana College has helped pump more than 300 new drivers into the trucking industry whose demand for employees continues to increase. TexAmericas Center is based in New Boston, Texas, near the Arkansas border. The organization owns and operates one of the largest mixed-use industrial parks in the United States, servicing four states: Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas.
The college already had a presence at TexAmericas Center offering training programs for diesel technology and welding. Trucking seemed like a natural fit, and talks started in 2014. Scott Norton, executive director/CEO at TexAmericas Center, was the bridge to help connect the two groups, having previously worked at the college.
“There’s a big need for truck drivers throughout the country, which includes opportunities to work with a variety of different companies, whether that’s open road or staying local,” Norton says. “We wanted to partner with TC to provide them with the space that helps support their needs going forward.”
The Texarkana College Professional Driving Academy is a four-week, 160-hour program. Students split their time between classroom lessons on the college campus, at the driving range at TexAmericas Center, and on the road gaining real-world skills and experience through a variety of driving scenarios (navigating pedestrian and traffic situations, different terrains and weather conditions, etc.).
In addition to those skills, the program also includes instruction and practice on pre-trip and post-trip inspections, various backing techniques, parallel parking, experience with navigation tools and logbooks/cargo documentations, and dispatch procedures. The college partners with the Ancora Corporate Training program for its instructors. Ancora is well-known in the trucking world, working throughout the US with government agencies and Fortune 500 companies.
“Our instructors have the proper certifications and industry expertise to work with our students and deliver one-on-one instruction and ensure successful completion and graduation for our program,” says Mendy Sharp, executive director of the professional driving academy.
Once students have completed the program, they are certified and qualified for employment expectations of any trucking road drivers, meaning they can travel to all 48 states and Canada. The only prerequisite for students is a high school diploma or GED equivalent, a valid driver’s license, and a birth certificate or state ID.
WHY IT WORKED
TexAmericas Center had ample room for the program’s classroom space, truck parking, and room for students to practice basic maneuvering and get them comfortable behind the wheel. Its location is also logistics friendly because of proximity to rail lines and roadways such as Interstates 30 and 49, and the Interstate 59/US Route 59 north-south corridor from Houston. The partnership is also mutually beneficial. For TexAmericas Center, it addresses workforce needs.
“We have tenants who need commercial truck drivers directly or need to make sure raw materials can be brought in and shipped out for finished products,” Norton says. “The program also is something we can showcase to prospects that we’re helping to meet workforce needs on our footprint. We want to do everything we can to support a trained workforce.”
One of those prospects-turned-tenants is Woodfield Inc., a family-owned/operated trucking business in Camden, Arkansas. The company will lease a 1,500-sq-ft space for its offices and 10 spaces for its trailer trucks across a total of three acres at TexAmericas Center—and the trucking connection with Texarkana College was part of the draw.
ADDRESSING THE NEED
The American Trucking Associations estimates that there’s a deficit of more than 60,000 drivers across all industries—a deficit that’s only expected to increase. There are more than 9,000 full-time job openings with average annual starting salaries of $62,000, Sharp notes.
To help address that need, Texarkana College has offered the four-week driving academy nearly every month. Accounting for holiday breaks and other closures, Sharp says they’re successfully completing 10 to 11 sessions per year. That frequency allows the college to keep the class sizes small—featuring about six to eight students at a time. Other factors like number of trucks available also dictate class sizes.
“Our instructors also really deliver intensive instruction and make sure students get equitable time behind the wheel,” Sharp says.
Since 2014, about 300 students have graduated from the program. Sharp says program officials are looking into ways to increase offering the program while still keeping it small. That means considering adding both instructors and trucks.
“Truck drivers were already in high demand, but in the last year, they became recognized as essential occupations and took on new characteristics through the pandemic,” Sharp explains. “There are phenomenal opportunities for people willing to train and enter the field.”
In the past month, Sharp says they turned away more students than they ever had before—enough to put on the list for the next session so that it’s almost filled up. They will continue to study that trend and consult with college and Ancora leaders about future growth.
STUDENTS SEE SUCCESS
The program draws students from Texas and Arkansas because it’s in a border city but also because of great relationships with workforce connection organizations in both states, Sharp says. Participants are predominantly men, but many women have also enrolled and graduated.
Sharp also notes the program initially attracted older students who may have been unemployed or looking for second career options. More recently, younger students who initially thought they’d go away for college have applied, looking for quicker transitions from education to job opportunities.
Renee Roberts, the program’s admissions representative, says most graduates have already spoken to at least one recruiter who has visited the training yard by the time they complete the four-week course. Students train and test in 18-wheelers and apply this to their employment opportunities about 80% of the time. Other drivers choose to drive locally to be near their families.
Graduate David Owens recalled at least four trucking companies were interested in him and fellow students because the school is certified and “so structured.”
“I’ve since driven with Maverick, trucking all across the country, but I now use my skills for transporting patients to the hospital and doctors’ offices,” Owens says. “The opportunities I have with my CDL are endless.”
After six years, the program is still going strong. College officials just signed a new two-year lease for the TexAmericas Center space with three one-year options.
“We hope five years from now, we’re signing another lease to continue the program,” Norton says. “We look forward to seeing the program grow and continuing to meet the local workforce needs. We’re excited to play a small role in these efforts to grow our local economy.”