Participants can pursue a career in the trucking industry which is experiencing a driver shortage.
Jaquize Green is your typical high school senior. He runs track and plays baseball for the Forrest City High School Mustangs, and he enjoys playing video games. Something not so typical, the eighteen-year-old recently achieved a unique accomplishment — Green is now the first student in Arkansas to have completed a Commercial Driver’s License program while still in high school.
“It feel unreal. It ain’t hit me yet…I’m proud, very proud of myself,” he says.
A partnership between the Forrest City School District and East Arkansas Community College, the program is the first of its kind in the state. It was designed to help address the need for more school bus drivers as well as a national shortage of truck drivers.
“This is exactly what everybody should be doing,” says Robert Summers, vice president for vocational, occupational and technical education. “Our economy needs more qualified workers in many areas. We’re not going to meet that need if we don’t start before high school graduation.”
In October 2021, the driver shortage reached an all-time high of 80,000 and it’s estimated the shortage could surpass 160,000 in 2030. To keep up with the demand over the next decade, the American Trucking Associations’ chief economist says trucking will need to recruit nearly 1 million new drivers.
The Forrest City program could help address the issue by building a pipeline into the trucking industry. The initiative launched in August 2021 as a pilot program with Green as the sole participant. Green attended the adult CDL class at EACC five days a week for eight weeks while completing his regular high school coursework online.
“It was a transition for us to have a high school student within the class, we enjoyed it,” CDL instructor Everette Woods says. “Working with him was a pleasure. It taught all of us a new avenue for us going from the adult side to the high school side.”
The college has hired a new CDL instructor who will be working with high school students this semester. The course has been altered so students will spend half the day at the college and the other half at the high school for 16 weeks. Four students enrolled at the start of the semester and two more have requested to be added to the class.
The program is open to students who are at least 18 years old and have a valid driver’s license. Because of the positive response to the program, officials are discussing offering a five-week session from May to June.
As part of this partnership, the Forrest City School Board approved $100,000 to purchase a truck and trailer. They still need to buy a trailer, but have purchased a truck that cost about $80,000. The district has also purchased new buses and once they arrive, one of the older buses will be taken to the college so students can also receive a passenger endorsement, which will allow them to operate a vehicle that carries more than 16 passengers, including the driver.
Becoming a truck driver could be a lucrative career because some companies are offering more money to attract and retrain drivers amid the shortage. KLLM Transport Services, for example, last week announced the largest comprehensive pay and compensation increase in the company’s history. KLLM’s CEO told Fox Business new drivers could now earn $120,000 to $150,000 in their first year.
“With $150,000 to start off, that’s a lot more than I started with,” Woods says.
Woods started driving at 18 years old as the owner and operator of his own truck. Now that he has his CDL license, Green hopes to eventually have his own business, but Woods says it’s good to work for a company first.
“I have never been a company driver, I do push that students get into being a company driver before becoming an owner-operator because it’s a lot of responsibility becoming an owner-operator and if you’re not mechanically inclined to work on your own truck, you going to be out of a lot of money,” Woods says.
Green is interested in working as a school bus driver for the time being and trucking companies have already reached out through Facebook saying he’ll have job opportunities once he graduates in May. Superintendents and colleges have also contacted the school district and EACC expressing interest in the program, which could become a model for other institutions around the state.
“When we launched the program, I felt like I knew that it was important, but I don’t think I understood the magnitude of what we were doing,” Forrest City superintendent Tiffany Hardrick says. “To me, this program is life-changing.”
Those interested in learning more about the CDL program or enrolling in the class can contact East Arkansas Community College or Forrest City High School.