Demand for truckers keeps CDL schools ‘busier than ever’

Truck drivers are in demand for jobs based in the Tri-Cities.

Teresa Maki, owner of T Enterprises, a Pasco private trucking school, said enrollment at her CDL school has almost doubled since 2020. (Courtesy T Enterprises)

Teresa Maki, who has been in business for more than 30 years as owner of T Enterprises, a Pasco private trucking school certified in Commercial Driving License (CDL) training by the state Department of Licensing, said her enrollment has almost doubled since 2020.

“The trucking industry has just exploded. I’m busier than I’ve ever been,” Maki said.

The most recent listing from the state Employment Security Department shows more than 200 job openings in transportation and material moving occupations.

“I usually have around 15 or 20 fliers in my break room from recruiters and now I have like 50,” Maki said.

She’s seeing more offers of full tuition reimbursement and sign-on bonuses for those who successfully complete their CDL training.

“Employers hiring new drivers have increased significantly. Before, they could easily find someone with a little bit more experience, but now they just can’t find enough drivers,” she said.

It’s a similar scenario at H&R Elite Trucking Academy in Prosser, which is also certified by the DOL to train CDL students.

“We’ve been seeing a lot more recruiters sent out to meet students and try to sweeten the pot by offering better benefits and better pay for the graduates,” said Juan Rojas Jr., an instructor’s assistant for H&R. “Some recruiters are even hiring right off the bat – hiring people with no experience and offering to train them – which is good, because we can only train them so much at school and they need to get a bit of orientation outside.”

The most recent figures from the ESD came out in spring of 2020 and found about 2,000 people working as heavy/tractor-trailer truck drivers and light truck drivers in the Tri-City area.

Statewide, demand has increased for the profession and so have the wages.

“Just off the top of my head, the pay has increased 30%,” Maki said.

The current average salary for 2020 was listed at around $50,000 yearly, according to the most recent state figures, though the Indeed job site said the state’s average truck driver salary is $73,131 a year.

Maki said she used to see starting hourly wages around $18 and those are now often $24 for drivers right out of school.

“Many are just desperate to hire,” she said.

Truck driving companies are looking for drivers all over the Tri-Cities. (Photo by Robin Wojtanik)

Rojas has seen starting salaries up to $60,000, but with inflation, the take-home pay isn’t as significant as it would have been a few years ago.

For those looking to jump into the profession and start making money quickly, Rojas cautioned people to better understand the job.

“People think the trucking industry is Monday to Friday, an eight-hour day job and it’s not at all. This is a productivity-based kind of job where they pay you based off how much you work and how much time you’re on the road. You’re not going to be able to come home every night. You’ll be working 10- to 12-hour days. It’s tiring psychologically, it’s hot, and it’s truly very difficult.”

Rojas said these challenges can often result in a retention issue for companies, either due to not paying workers enough or employees finding the industry too challenging.

“A lot of people have their CDL Class A or B, but they just don’t use it,” he said.

The Biden Administration is taking an active role in trying to alleviate the “high turnover and low job quality” in the trucking industry.

“Turnover in trucking routinely averages 90% for some carriers and drivers spend about 40% of their workday waiting to load and unload goods – hours that are typically unpaid. Many truckers are not directly employed and operate as independent small businesses, bearing the burden of leasing, gas, insurance, and maintenance costs themselves, causing many to leave the profession,” according to a White House statement.

The industry also skews older and is dominated by men, though there’s a push to appeal to women.

Biden’s office said trucking jobs had been on the decline for years before historic job growth in 2021 which resulted in employment exceeding pre-pandemic levels, with industry growth above 8% in the state of Washington, not far off the highest demand found in California with growth north of 10%.

Obtaining a CDL can cost $3,200 to $5,000 around the Tri-Cities and Yakima Valley. This includes 160 hours of training for drivers, usually done full time for about a month.

Maki’s school offers a night class for students in the evenings and can be completed in eight weeks.

She used to see about half a dozen new students starting every Monday, but now that number has doubled, turning out about 45 graduates each month. She’s had to hire additional instructors to meet the demand and raise prices to cover fuel costs. She’s currently employing 15 instructors using 15 semis and recently ran up a bill of $8,000 on fuel in a single week of instructing students.

The quick return on the training investment will still bring people to the profession, especially as companies like Walmart announce drivers working directly for Walmart’s private fleet can expect to make up to $110,000 in their first year of employment.

“You can get the cost of your CDL paid back 100% in most instances when you’re hired,” Maki said. “You’re making good money and you owe nothing, whereas you go to college for two to three years and come out with $30,000 to $50,000 in debt and you’re not making more than a truck driver.”

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