The students are largely middle-aged, unemployed, yearning for a fresh start. Some have come from distant Midwestern burgs, others from areas decimated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, or from downtown homeless shelters.
When the days turn cold, aspiring truck drivers wait patiently outside on crumbling blue and orange chairs, warming their hands above a fire raging in a black trash drum. When called, they climb aboard Volvo-brand tractors attached to 48-foot trailers, ignoring expired license tags and dangling weather stripping, and navigate orange cones scattered throughout the dirt training yard.
Inside, a crowd of twenty new students "Class of Three Weeks from Now" suck on plastic bottles of Mr. Pibb and Mountain Dew. The grungy, windowless classroom is adorned with posters containing such messages as "America Needs You" and "Take Care of Yourself on the Road!"
Commanding their rapt attention is Nu-Way regional vice president Vern Fuller, looking dapper in a red tie and blue suit, an American flag on his lapel.
"I get asked on a regular basis: 'Vern, am I too old to get into trucking?' [And I say] 'Are you kidding?'" Fuller glances at the racially mixed student body, many of whom are clad in flannel, jeans and boots, and adds, "The industry loves maturity. One of the biggest complaints I've had from our graduates is, 'I don't know what to do with the money I make.'"
A financial planner from Edward Jones will visit soon to teach them about 401(k)s and tips on how to play the stock market. And when their three-week training is complete, Fuller crows, they'll practically have to beat recruiters back with a stick. "A typical student gets between three and six pre-hire offers, although I've heard of someone getting nineteen."
Nu-Way is less than two years old but already has minted its share of success stories, including 41-year-old Daniel Brand. With a wide smile revealing his almost-toothless gums, Brand's life was a mess before entering the school. After being laid off in 2003 from a job slinging franks and sodas at Kansas City International Airport, he returned, penniless, to his native St. Louis. When he wasn't crashing at relatives' pads, the former army man slept at the Sunshine Mission and the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center.
Through word of mouth, Brand found out about a federal grant for homeless veterans, and after a short employment course at St. Patrick's Center, the downtown homeless-services agency paid Brand's $3,000 Nu-Way enrollment money he'll never have to pay back.
"It was my golden ticket," says Brand.
Brand now earns upward of $30,000 a year piloting an eighteen-wheeler for Phoenix-based Swift Transportation one of the largest trucking companies in the nation from the Florida seaside to the mountains of Oregon. The soup kitchens have given way to all-you-can-eat truck-stop buffets.
Brand's fable-like ascent isn't unusual. Because of increased post-9/11 regulations, an exploding hauling demand and a slew of retirements, the industry faces the greatest driver shortfall in its history. And so, yes, even the homeless are welcome. Some 20,000 drivers are needed nationwide this year, and that number is expected to triple by the end of the decade.
"We used to not hire drivers unless they were experienced, but the pool of qualified drivers has dwindled to the point that everyone's fighting for them," observes Bucky Irwin, a recruiter for Paschall Truck Lines, a Murray, Kentucky-based company that recently began hiring driver-school graduates for the first time in its 50-year history.
The average graduate, says Fuller, will make $35,000 to $45,000 a year and receive full benefits. "I don't know anything else in America you can do in 18 to 21 days, and walk out with that type of gainful employment."
Still, many industry analysts worry that three weeks of training does not a trucker make, saying programs at bare minimum should include at least two additional weeks of on-the-job apprenticeship.
"Most of us in the industry agree that that is not the way to train a driver," says Eric Harley, co-host of The Midnight Trucking Radio Network, a nationally syndicated trucking talk show. "Three weeks is not enough time to prepare a driver for that kind of lifestyle. We need to do a more thorough job getting these people trained not only to operate that huge machine, but how to deal with everything on the road."
"There are a lot of [three-week] trucking schools that are out to generate as much revenue as they can based on the need, and they're not supplying quality," says Duff Swain, president of the Trincon Group, a transportation consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio. "I would compare them to diploma mills."
Bucky Erwin's rich Kentucky twang is on display when he spins phrases like: "I've had my head up my butt for the last few days," or, "Drivers tell me they live in a box, piss on tires and chase cars." With a thick white beard and round, ruddy face, he looks like a Southern-fried Santa Claus, apropos for his role recruiting drivers.
"No alcohol or drug felonies in the last ten years is our policy," he told a roomful of Nu-Way students recently. "But we will bend the rules based on the severity of the crime."
Erwin has the luxury of offering students some nice perks if they come to work for Paschall, including a $3,900 signing bonus and excellent healthcare benefits. Far from a fast-talking industry yes-man, Erwin, a former popcorn salesman, freely shares the darker side of the storied trucking lifestyle.
"You're getting into a tough life," he tells the hundreds of students he sees each month throughout the Midwest. "It's not glamorous, it's not easy. Drivers work 70 hours per week. You see a lot of marital problems a lot of truckers are divorced."
Erwin knows that 700 truckers die in road accidents every year, and that they're 30 percent more likely than the national average to die of heart disease. "Every year PTL finds several drivers dead in their trucks," he says. "A few years back I was talking on the phone to a guy who had a heart attack right in the middle of our conversation. They have a horrible lifestyle. They don't get any exercise, they sit in that seat all day long, and most of them smoke and eat truck-stop food that's usually greasy and high in carbohydrates."
Carriers report more than 100 percent turnover every year, fueled by drivers who retire, die, switch companies or move on to other industries.
"Our driver pool is predominantly white men, aged 35 to 54, a demographic group in and of itself which is declining," says Tiffany Wazlovski, director of public affairs for the American Trucking Association. "And whenever the economy is doing well, we lose people to blue-collar professions like construction and manufacturing, because of quality-of-life issues."
Despite repeated salary increases by motor carriers, in 2004 the average salary for a trucker stood at about $35,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, about three grand less than the average salary for construction work.
Meanwhile, the industry's growth is outpacing the American economic expansion. Despite gas-price increases, the vast majority of U.S. freight is still shipped by truck ten billion tons in 2004, up three billion from 1997. "Rail is still cheaper, but trucking is the fastest, except for plane," Erwin says.
As a result of the labor shortage, five percent of most trucking companies' fleets sit idle on any given day, says Trincon president Duff Swain. "Companies are buying trucks and not always able to fill them with drivers. This is an issue that will eventually affect gross national product."
Increased demand and tighter supply have led to an unprecedented recruitment blitz. Headhunters regularly prowl truck stops, while carriers set up promotional booths on military bases. Representatives from the motor carriers even travel as far away as the United Kingdom and Poland to find fresh blood.
The American Trucking Association, meanwhile, is investing $500,000 on a driver-luring ad campaign this summer, featuring radio ads and billboards, with slogans like "My office has a better view than yours."
"We're looking to more women, more minorities, ex-military people who are retired but want to work part-time, and married couples who want to drive but want to spend more time together," says Wazlovski.
That last demographic was specifically highlighted in a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch half-page advertorial titled: "The Interstate is the Home for Husband and Wife Trucker Team." (The ad did not list a sponsor.)
Jennifer and Dan are not your typical married couple, and their meeting and courtship didn't fall within storybook parameters. Their lifestyle is about as unconventional as you can get. They met at U.S. Xpress, which employs approximately 7,500 drivers, and were introduced to each other by a trainer driver. They hit it off immediately, and decided to run team together. A month later, while approaching the Utah border doing close to 70 mph, Dan asked Jennifer to marry him. She said yes, and told him to keep his eyes on the road.
To boost retention, carriers offer free food, gifts and concerts at driver appreciation days. Drivers are encouraged to customize their cabs with showers and sinks, computers, surround-sound theater and flat-screen televisions. But those perks don't change the job's demanding nature, say many veteran drivers.
"Any other job you get to go home after eight hours," says Edwin Mejia, a hulking hauler out of Tyler, Texas. "I see new drivers, and they say they're only going to work for a year or so and then quit to drive locally."
Clint Yerkes, a 64-year-old former Xerox sales manager, got into the right business at the right time. Since opening Nu-Way's first training school in Pontiac, Michigan, in 2000, demand for his students has accelerated at a rapid clip.
"An executive vice president from one of the top four largest companies, Werner [Enterprises], told me they're looking for 500 drivers a week," he says.
Yerkes has twice been treated to luxury weekends of hunting, fishing and skeet shooting at Werner's country lodge on the Platte River, just outside of Omaha. "They pay for all my travel, all my food everything."
Werner knows that Nu-Way churns out truck drivers. In 2005, the year after Yerkes and Fuller brought the company to St. Louis, the two schools combined to graduate more than a thousand students. (Yerkes expects that number to reach 1,700 this year.)
"Strategically, [St. Louis] is of vital importance to the industry," says Fuller. "Some research says that 80 percent of the nation's freight comes through St. Louis. So even if a major trucking company doesn't have an official terminal here, they'll have what's referred to as a 'drop yard.'"
Last fall Fuller turned to St. Patrick's Center, a downtown St. Louis provider of homeless services, for help with recruitment. The employment manager there, Sergio Muñoz, has placed some of the city's most troubled people from career criminals to recovering drug addicts with companies like the St. Louis Business Journal and Home Depot.
"Truck-driver training has gotten a bad name, with some real fly-by-night operations," Muñoz says. "But Vern [Fuller] is an ex-social worker he's dealt with the people we deal with here and convinced me to give him a try."
Their partnership appears to have clicked. With the help of a federal grant earmarked for homeless veterans, Muñoz has put six students through Nu-Way's training, five of whom he says are currently employed as drivers. Overall, 20 percent of Nu-Way's students have their tuition paid by social service agencies, says Yerkes.
Since deregulation in 1980, the truck-driver-training industry has grown to more than 500 schools. "I know there's a lot more now than there's ever been, and it's grown every year," says Carl Spatocco, chairman for the Commercial Vehicle Training Association. "Just in the last five years, there's probably 30 to 40 percent more truck driving schools than there were before that."
Spatocco says that the majority are private schools like Nu-Way, whose main mission is to train students to pass the Certified Driver's License (CDL) exam. Public schools around the country also provide this service, including East St. Louis Community College Center, where Illinois residents pay $2,800 for ten weeks of training.
Some carriers train their own drivers, including Con-Way Central Express, whose St. Louis in-house institute offers a three- to four-month curriculum, combining classroom hours with an apprenticeship.
Local privately run schools include 50 Stars, C1, Midwestern Training Center and Nu-Way, which charge anywhere from $1,700 to $6,300 for intensive, two- to three-week programs. Each company says it places nearly one hundred percent of its graduates.
But the schools trouble longtime Midnight Trucking Radio Network host Eric Harley, whose grandfather, a trucker, was killed hauling a load in Texas. "There are plenty of people that come out of a CDL school with only a few weeks of training and quickly are intimidated by strange places and homesickness. I think there should be some on-the-job training at these schools, where a driver is able to go out and experience life on the road."
Says Nancy O'Liddy, director of the Professional Truck Driver Institute: "Our guesstimate is that four to six weeks of training are needed [to adequately train a driver]." No St. Louis schools are certified by PTDI.
Yerkes responds that Nu-Way's curriculum is licensed by the Missouri Board of Education. Moreover, most carriers, he says, usually provide on-the-job training themselves and would not permit a new truck-driver-training-school graduate to man a rig by himself.
"We do not teach people how to drive a tractor and trailer, we teach them how to take the test for the CDL," says Yerkes. "Talk to the top six to eight carriers in the United States. They have to teach them how to drive in a desert, up a mountain, down a mountain. I don't care if you had school for six months you would still have to be trained by a carrier."
"It just stands to reason that the less behind the wheel time you get there's got to be a difference," counters Carl Spatocco.
Last month, Missouri's Department of Revenue demanded that more than 2,000 licensed drivers retake their Certified Driver's License exams. Turns out many test-takers never actually drove a truck during their examinations at privately run testing centers in Sikeston and West Plains.
"I found out later on that Sikeston was a guaranteed 'pass,'" driver Don Barnett told the Post-Dispatch.
Because the local CDL testing facility was booked solid, a number of Nu-Way graduates tested at Sikeston before it was shut down, says Fuller. "We had some that were on the property when the raid came down. The U.S. marshals and FBI did not allow our students to talk on their cell phones. We were trying to find out what was going on. It was a pretty tense situation."
He says he doesn't know exactly how many Nu-Way students tested there, or if any were required to re-take the exam. "All we did was go down there and test. There were no improprieties and nothing unethical done on our part. Our students were trained by the numbers, by the book."
Former Illinois Governor George Ryan's recent corruption trial also brought attention to the issue of high-risk truckers on the road. Ricardo Guzman received his license via a bribe taken by the office of Ryan, then secretary of state. Guzman didn't speak English, so he couldn't understand warnings from other drivers on November 8, 1994, that his truck's metal undercarriage was loose. Later that day, it fell off on a Milwaukee expressway, hitting a Chicago family's van and rupturing its gas tank. Six of the family's children were killed in the fiery crash.
Fuller says that Nu-Way is concerned with roadway safety and screens its applicants thoroughly. He estimates that 20 to 50 percent are rejected, many because of prior troubles with the law. "We look at those with criminal backgrounds on a case-by-case basis," he says. "Depends on what the crime was, how long ago it occurred, and what the applicant has done since the occurrence.
"But if you become so selective that all you hire are Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts those individuals with no criminal backgrounds, good driving records and work histories your business will probably suffer to some extent, because there aren't enough of those to go around."
Nu-Way did find room for Antone Wilson, who served nine months in prison for cocaine possession. He says no other trucking school in the nation would accept him. Upon graduation he was hired by a small Indiana carrier, which soon went out of business. Wilson eventually used his CDL to land a job as a garbage man and today drives a ten-wheel trash hauler for Allied Waste Services in Evansville, Indiana.
"I prefer being a trash man," Wilson says. "I have to get up at four or five in the morning, and had a few hundred dollars [salary] cut. But I'll take it. The convenience of being at home outweighs it."
At all hours at Flying J Travel Plaza in Granite City, big-rig drivers pull in to wash a load of laundry, take a hot shower, buy a tank of diesel or check on the day's posted Homeland Security threat level. They can take out Chinese food, pizza, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and rentable audio books of the Bible the latter of which they're asked to return to a Flying J down the road.
The Plaza is usually crowded with industry veterans, some counting down the days to retirement. One thing the veterans agree on is that today's new drivers are poor drivers, and many blame the trucking schools.
"They aren't as well-trained as back in the day," Allen Quentin says between bites of a steak sandwich. "It's a shotgun method of putting them out. They're not very polite, and they haven't learned the road savvy or courtesy that the old hands used to have."
"They'll learn it," he adds ominously, "if they live long enough."
Quentin learned his trade as a teenager moving grain on the family farm. He never bothered with a truck-driver training course and today operates a five-rig carrier called C-Quin out of Aurora, Missouri.
As boss man, he knows as well as anybody that his industry is strapped for labor. But he says he'd never hire a homeless man. "I'm glad some of these guys have an opportunity, but they've exhibited their lack of judgment because of the position they're in in life. Some of it's not their fault, but some of it is," he says. "I don't know if they're the kinds of guys you want behind 70 tons of steel going 80 down the highway, with all the training they're likely to get."
Al Geiser, a cowboy-boots-and-John-Deere-cap-clad veteran hauler, is convinced that some graduates are illiterate.
"They either can't read or don't abide our laws. When the sign says get in the left-hand lane, they don't get in the left-hand lane," Gieser complains. "There ain't the courtesy there was. When you're getting on the on-ramp, most now won't pull over and let you on."
Having just unloaded a flatbed of brass rod in Washington, Missouri, Geiser scans a monitor in Flying J's trucker's lounge, which lists available loads. He's anxious to get one that will take him back home to Montpelier, Ohio, where his wife and children await.
"I think about quitting every day," he says. "There was a lot less traffic when I started. If you saw lights coming at you at night, you just about knew it was a cop, 'cause nobody drove at night. Now, you make less money because the roads are so crowded."
Geiser takes yet another look at the monitor. Convinced that he's not going to find another load for a while, his mind switches gears.
"You wouldn't happen to know if there's a Hooters nearby, would you?"