HUDSON — Starting this month, drivers in Central Illinois may start seeing a semi with a bright red tractor and muted blue trailer featuring a Nussbaum Trucking Academy logo. Inside will be four CDL students and their instructor, a Nussbaum Transportation employee.
The first class starts Oct. 11, said Jeremy Stickling, Nussbaum’s chief administrative officer, with the goal of preparing drivers to take their CDL tests and be safe semi drivers generally. Classes last four weeks, with the second one starting Nov. 15.
Classes are limited to four students right now, but at least seven people wanted to sign up for the first one, Stickling said. The equipment is there to expand if they want to in the future.
“If the enrollment’s there, we could instantly scale up,” he said.
Before starting the academy, Nussbaum already had a finishing program for drivers who recently received a CDL and wanted to work for the company.
“You don’t just take someone with a fresh CDL, put them in a truck and say ‘Good luck,’” Stickling said.
Still, launching a full driving school would require things like more physical space, curriculum development and working through regulatory requirements. That’s where the company’s partnership with Heartland Community College comes in: Nussbaum will coordinate the instruction while the college will handle tuition, transcripts and other bureaucratic parts to having a school.
Heartland had already been offering a CDL course, but the four-week-long courses and small class sizes did not fit well with the college’s broader structure, board of trustee documents said.
Nussbaum drivers Jeff King and Jeff Jackson will be stepping up to teach at the new academy, and several other drivers have also expressed interest. The faculty will also include the current truck driving instructors from Heartland.
Standard semi trucks only come with two seats, though some, with what are called sleeper-lounge cabs, include seatbelts in back. Specialized cabs will let a student drive with an instructor in the front seat and other three students observing from the back.
Along with the physical trucks, students will be able to use a trucking simulator Nussbaum has been using for continuing training for drivers.
Training has changed a lot since King started driving semis in the 1970s, he said. He came home from military service and had always enjoyed driving, so he got into trucking.
“Pretty much that’s all I’ve done since the ’70s,” he said.
King has worked in other CDL schools, but is self-taught himself, having grown up on a farm and learning to drive farm equipment. When he started in trucking, he was driving for mom-and-pop companies, where he took what he already knew from the farm and applied it to the highways.
The highways are one of the positive changes King has seen in his time driving. The infrastructure has improved a lot since the 1970s, he said, especially with the expansion of the interstate system. The equipment has also improved, he said: When he started, the trucks did not have air conditioning, GPS or even power steering.
Laws connected to driving have also changed a lot since the 1970s, King said. Back then, drivers could do almost anything they wanted in terms of hours and tracking logs. While it was hard to switch over to new systems like GPS tracking and automatic travel logs, the new regulations made the roads safer, he said.
New federal requirements called Enter-Level Driver Training take effect in February, requiring all new CDL holders to have gone through a training course. Under current regulations, drivers can simply take the written test and road test and if they pass, they can receive a CDL.
With those changes, it is valuable to have new truckers go through an established school, Jackson and King said.
Jackson came to the trucking industry around five years ago, changing careers after being a police officer in Pekin. He went through CDL school at the Professional Development Institute at Illinois Central College.
While Jackson is newer to trucking, he brings plenty of experience in training to the academy.
“I like instructing, teaching. I was a master firearms instructor for the police department,” he said.
The Nussbaum Trucking Academy and other CDL programs provide an essential service to keep truckers and the drivers around them safe, Jackson said.
“Now it’s even more so with the new laws going into effect,” he said.
There are business advantages to having an in-house CDL school as well, Stickling admitted. He hopes that some students will decide to work for Nussbaum, and the company also benefits by knowing exactly what the new drivers have learned.
But the the community should benefit, too, he said: The school will be helping to provide trained drivers for other jobs that require CDLs in the area.
“We’re not just looking to fill seats at Nussbuam,” King said.
The influx of qualified drivers should help the trucking industry as a whole, as it is facing a driver shortage, Stickling said. At Nussbaum, pay has gone up by around 15% since last year, and at 450 drivers, the company is still not where it wants to be in employment.
“I think we’re going to hit (our growth target), it’s been a challenge,” Stickling said.
The trucking industry has also been affected by e-commerce during the pandemic. Long-haul jobs are down, while final-mile jobs from distribution centers to front porches are up, Stickling said. Nussbaum and other long-haul trucking companies are also facing uncertainty due to pandemic-related shutdowns on the supply chain, he said.
Retention has long been a problem for the trucking industry, as well. Drivers may think the job will suit them, Stickling said, until they have to explain to a spouse that they will not be home because their truck broke down, or will not be able to help their children through discipline problems at school.
“It fits some people really well, and others it doesn’t fit,” Stickling said.
One of the goals of the new academy is to help students make that realization earlier in their career, which is better for them and their future employers.
“It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” King said.
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Contact Connor Wood at (309)820-3240. Follow Connor on Twitter: @connorkwood