Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Career planning

I read an ad in Chicago Sunday paper
Said help wanted, semi driver needed bad,
I walked in and said, I’d like to see the foreman.
I told him all the experience that I’d had,
He said son, you’re just the man I’m needing.
He handed me the keys then shook my hand,
Pointed to the truck and said I’ll see you --
Take that load of steel to Birmingham.
I finally got inside and got it started, put it in a gear and started backing up,
Tried every way to get going forward but I ain’t never drove a big ole truck.

Those first lines of the late Lester Flatt’s song “Backing to Birmingham” must make a lot of us in my generation thinking back to how we started trucking.

Back then it was pretty easy to qualify. Just have a driver’s license, if it was a little shaky, just go to another state and get a new one. The tough part was getting someone to give you a chance. If you grew up in the business, or came off the farm, I think that was probably the easiest way. 

I got my break when I went for a ride-along with a driver to Mexico for a load of brick. We spent the night on the border and when it was time to go he the put me in the seat, got us started and told me not to speed or hit anything then promptly passed out in the bunk.

Now we come to a young man that my wife Geri and I know. He’s wanted to be an Indiana State Trooper since he can remember and he was running his plan by me the other day. As far as high school, he probably didn’t major in phys ed, shop and study hall like I did, but he’s taken a lot of courses to help prepare him. He told us that joining the National Guard and getting involved in its military police training is part of his plan to get to the State Police Academy. He’s getting some hands on experience like working part time at the jail, doing ride-a-longs with local police, being called out on accidents. It will give him an idea of what he’s getting into.

Do you know what this young man has in common with my generation, and those before who got into trucking anyway we could? It’s simple. We could decide that this ain’t my bag after all and simply walk away without sinking a load of cash into it. Of course, our aspiring trooper will have his National Guard obligation, still a positive as he is still getting training, serving his country and being paid. But the point is: he could still graduate from the Indiana police academy, go out on the force and decide it wasn’t for him after all and walk away with no obligation, financial or otherwise.

Not so much with aspiring truck drivers today. It must appear to a trucking career wannabe that the only way to break into the business is going to a truck driver school. And that means getting a student loan or sign with a carrier that will train you. That comes with an obligation to work for them for a certain amount of time and if you don’t stick it out you’re obligated to repay them for the schooling.

I can just imagine a new driver being turned loose only to find this isn’t working. Especially kids from the inner cities. I can imagine how lonely and frustrating it could be for some. Not making hardly enough to cover advances and other deductions. What’s he or she do? Quit and find another job and start paying back that student loan?  That’s called paying off a dead horse. And it’s another of the many reasons for the driver shortage.

Entry level training is a good thing, but trucking school is not the only way to get into trucking.

There’s no real way of preparing for life on the road – being away from home, the congestion, the aggravation, the inconveniences and all – but if you want to make trucking your career, you need to hang out in the industry a while to see if it suits you. Find a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or a fringe job that can introduce you to the trucking world.

If you don’t like it, you’ll know before you make a big commitment or get upside down in a big loan.