Learning - or teaching - how to drive a big rig can pay off, as job seekers and several local schools are finding.
The trucking industry is in critical need of drivers across the country, and the demand to truck cargo and goods will only grow as the economy continues to improve, experts say.
From the end of 2010 through this January, trucking companies boosted payrolls by 8.1 percent, or 102,900 jobs, more than twice the 3.4 percent gain in overall employment, the U.S. Labor Department says.
The average wage for heavy-truck and tractor-trailer drivers was nearly $40,000 a year in the latest figures, but annual earnings can go much higher, industry experts say.
All of this means now is an exciting time for someone who wants to get into trucking, said Stan Steinman, the dean of workforce development at Pima Community College. PCC offers truck-driver training.
Of course, the job has its downsides: long hours, roads that can be dangerous, stress, weeks away from home. Commercial-truck drivers are allowed to work up to 70 hours a week under U.S. rules.
That's why, even amid a struggling economy with high unemployment, trucking companies have had a tough time hiring young drivers willing to hit the road for long hauls.
It's also why some companies are offering incentives such as bonuses of up to $5,000 for drivers who stay for at least a year, or are finding ways to get more of their drivers home at least once a week.
Truck drivers don't need college degrees but do need to earn a commercial driver's license, which can take a month or longer of taking classes that cost $3,000 or more.
The U.S. Department of Transportation sets minimum requirements for drivers who do interstate commerce. Such drivers must be at least 21 years-old and have at least 20/40 vision, good hearing, and the ability to read and speak English. A good driving record is also important.
Pima College course
Pima Community College offers a four-week course in truck-driving training. The class is held off campus at 6680 S. Country Club Road, and runs for 160 hours. Students spend the first 80 hours in the classroom and the second 80 hours behind the wheel.
Alongside Pima's truck-driving school sits a lot that's empty except for the two 18-wheelers used for student practice.
Once students learn basic safety, how to change gears, and other trucking maneuvers, they are allowed to practice on the road. During practice time the students are always accompanied by an experienced instructor.
Students in the Pima program say learning to drive an 18-wheeler hasn't just helped them prepare for plentiful jobs, but has also given them more respect for other drivers and made them more aware when on the road.
"It's better than I expected," said student Milton Champion.
Bob Tracey and other PCC students said they believe they'll have a high probability of getting a job after they complete the training.
Before students apply for the course, they are required to get three pre-hire letters from transportation companies.
Pima also brings company recruiters into the classroom.
Marilyn Juan is a graduate of the program and is in the process of applying for jobs.
Although trucking is a mostly male-dominated industry, it has always been a dream of hers.
"I like to compete in the men's world. I'm a very hard worker. I like the challenge," Juan said.
Juan said she the instructors were very helpful. "It's a great experience. Give it a try," Juan said.
Roy Burks, a teacher in the Pima program, has been driving trucks for 12 years. "The freedom is my favorite thing. You can be your own boss. When you get into the truck, you're in your own zone," Burks said.
Another option for Tucsonans looking to start a career in the transportation business is HDS Truck Driving Institute.
HDS has trained hundreds of students since opening in 1991, said its marketing manager, Jane Buchanan. HDS also has locations in Phoenix and Yuma.
Tucson-owned and operated Southwest Truck Driver Training, at 1230 W. Glenn St., has also seen a demand for its graduates since it opened in 1999.
Job placement director Daniel Gilson of that company has been in the trucking business for 30 years. He said every field of truck driving, including regional routes, local routes and cross-country routes, is seeking drivers.
Southwest offers courses to help students attain a commercial driver's license. Students can choose between four-week, five-week and eight-week courses to learn how to drive 18-wheelers.
Students spend time in the classroom learning procedures and regulations, then spend time behind the wheel, similar to Pima.
Also like Pima, students are expected to get three pre-hire letters for preapproval of employment from companies before starting classes. Gilson said this helps to ensure students will get a job after completing the course.
"My goal is to get every student that comes in here a job," he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Average annual wage for U.S. heavy-truck and tractor-trailer drivers in 2011, the latest figure available. That's up 9.7 percent in five years.
Number of truck-driver jobs U.S. companies are expected to create per year through 2016.
Percentage of the total demand for such jobs that's met by Americans who get trained each year for them.
Forecast of the shortfall in needed truck drivers that will exist by the end of this year. That will be the biggest deficit in nine years.
Percentage of all U.S. cargo that's moved by trucks.
Sources: U.S. Labor Department, Bloomberg News, FTR Associates forecasting firm, Georgia Center of Innovation for Logistics, The Associated Press.
Trucking program tuition costs
• Pima Community College: $3,200; possible $200 scholarship. Students fill out an application when they are accepted into the school, stating why they need financial aid, and their career goals.
• Southwest Truck Driver Training: $3,695; possible scholarship/grant opportunities. Contact an admissions representative for more information. Southwest Truck Driver Training is partnered with Pima County OneStop and may be able to fund student tuition from the Workforce Investment Act and other sources.
• HDS: $3,495 average; financial aid available for those who qualify. Military can use GI bill.
Sources: School officials
Bloomberg News and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Ashley Grove is a NASA Space Grant intern at the University of Arizona. Contact her at email@example.com or 573-4674.