Want an entry-level job earning $60,000 a year after 16 weeks of training at a community college?
That's what prompted Marshall Wright, who had been stocking store shelves for Coca-Cola, to switch careers. He enrolled in Elgin Community College's truck driving program and, four months later, he left with his commercial driver's license.
It landed him a job as a driver for a Coca-Cola distribution center in St. Charles.
"My first year I made $60,000," said Wright, 33, of Elgin. "Guys who are in college for four years would kill to have that kind of salary, and I'm not indebted in student loan, either."
A Larkin High School graduate who lacked a college degree, he found his commercial license gave him a leg up in the job market.
"I just saw it as a better opportunity to make more money," he said. "It puts food on the table, pays my mortgage."
ECC's program attracts students from across the state, and it has a nearly 100 percent pass rate. Best of all, graduates leave with job offers in hand, said Don Anderson, a former truck driver and course director.
"It's probably the fastest, least-known way to get a skilled job and get right in the workforce," he said. "I don't think people realize they can change their life in a matter of 16 weeks."
The program's success partly is due to a growing demand for drivers of heavy trucks and tractor-trailers -- the U.S. Department of Labor predicts nearly 200,000 new truck drivers will be needed through 2022.
Competitive wages are a lure. The median annual salary for drivers with a commercial license was $40,260 in May 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Truckers who work for private fleets can make up to $73,000 yearly, according to the American Trucking Association.
Yet, the industry is struggling to find enough qualified drivers.
Seeking new blood
Nearly 70 percent of all freight in the U.S. is moved on trucks. To move 10.5 billion tons of freight yearly requires more than 3.5 million truck drivers, the trucking association says.
But as of 2015, the industry faced a shortage of 48,000 drivers, mostly for long distances. The reasons are myriad: Older drivers retiring and not enough new blood, regulatory concerns, and job stresses, such as working long hours and physical strain. Driver pay is the largest piece of the operational cost for trucking companies, and many carriers have strict hiring criteria based on driving history, experience and other factors, which contributes to finding fewer eligible candidates, the association says.
The average age for an over-the-road, or long-haul, truck driver is 49, an industry study found. It also has struggled to attract women, who make up only 5.8 percent of drivers. However, more minorities have been getting into the field, comprising 38.6 percent of drivers today.
"A lot of the older drivers have been getting out of the field," said Anderson, who spent 26 years as a long-haul driver of oil tankers for Pennzoil before joining ECC seven years ago. "There just has not been an influx of younger drivers. We're trying to reach out to students. We had a huge demand, and we spiked our enrollment with people trying to change professions during the 2009-2010 recession ... many construction workers and people that had been laid off. Since the economy has gotten better, we have less people changing professions."
But for students who stick with the program, success is striking: Since 2012, 206 students have been through ECC's program with a 98.5 percent pass rate. Of those, 201 students tested for and received a commercial license from the state and have landed jobs with local and major trucking companies, such as XPO Logistics, Roehl Transport Inc., and Schneider Transportation and Logistics.
Students participating in the program average about 30 years old, down from 40 during the recession. Roughly 10 percent are women.
Why ECC stands out
ECC's program -- offered since the early 1990s -- is unique for its rigor. It involves 320 hours of training: five weeks in the classroom using state-of-the-art simulation equipment and 11 weeks of hands-on driving. No other suburban community college offers such extensive training -- most programs range between 160 (the state minimum) and 240 hours.
"We have a lot of employers that are trying to actively recruit our drivers because of the length of the program," Anderson said.
Students train for the top license -- Class A semi tractor-trailers -- and strictly with manual transmissions.
"When a student finishes our program, there should be no restrictions on their license at all," Anderson said. "We use identical equipment that the students will be using in the industry."
Their simulator, for instance, wraps around the student, creating an environment of being inside the cab of a truck. Students are subjected to changing road conditions, such as poor visibility, mountain terrain, tire blowouts and mechanical failures -- circumstances that cannot be replicated in on-road training.
"There is no other school in the area that has this," Anderson said. "This is the equipment that the big companies are using to retrain their drivers."
Tuition for ECC's program is $4,200, and the college will help students apply for loans or grants.
Some larger trucking companies also reimburse tuition costs if students work for them after graduation, Anderson said.
With warehousing and distribution centers proliferating in the Chicago area, there also is a need for drivers with forklift certification, which ECC will offer as an elective this fall.
Life on the road
Becoming a truck driver requires long hours and being away a lot for those who do long-distance driving. It takes a toll on the body, as well.
"I am using my back a lot and my legs," said Wright, who stays within a 50-mile radius of St. Charles.
Though he doesn't yet have a family, Wright said maintaining a work-family life balance would be a challenge.
"You got to know how to juggle it," he said.
For him, the benefits of having stability and good earning potential outweigh the drawbacks. While Wright does not prefer long-distance driving, job opportunities abound for those who don't mind the long hauls.
"I'm happy to work in the morning, go home at night and come back to work the next day," he said. "It was definitely a career move. I don't see myself not driving a truck for the rest of my life ... I can't say it's for everybody, but it does have good starting salary at entry level. You are experiencing the open road. ... You don't have a boss over your head all the time."