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Truckers needed

New $3.4 million grant aims to train more than 300 truck drivers in Southern Oregon over the next several years
Jeremy Hayes, director of maintenance, works on a truck at Siskiyou Transportation in Ashland Wednesday. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Trucks are parked because of a lack of drivers at Siskiyou Transportation in Ashland Wednesday. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

The Southern Oregon trucking industry is positioned to reap the benefits of a $3.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce intended to train truck drivers and place them in jobs.

The program, called “Driving Prosperity,” intends to produce 325 new licensed truck drivers in two years across six southwestern Oregon counties, including Jackson and Josephine.

The lead applicant, the nonprofit Southwestern Oregon Workforce Investment Board — primarily serving Douglas, Coos and Curry counties — will work alongside a variety of partners, including the Rogue Valley Workforce Partnership, to carry out the program.

“Some of our larger, local trucking companies have 30 trucks sitting idle because they don’t have drivers to drive them,” said Heather Stafford, chief operating officer of the Medford-based workforce partnership. “There’s a big need, and we’re really excited that we’re going to have more opportunities to fill it.”

Her comments come amid a nationwide shortage of truck drivers, a challenge that predates the pandemic (an aging workforce), but has worsened because of it (surges in demand and supply-chain disruptions).

And although trucking is considered a high-wage sector, it currently has more trucking job ads than drivers, with a shortfall of 80,000 drivers. One of the prime reasons the jobs aren’t being filled fast enough is that training is expensive and doesn’t qualify for federal student financial aid.

Kyle Stevens, executive director of the Southwestern Oregon Workforce Investment Board, said that truck driver training — one of the board’s top priorities — isn’t cheap.

“Each year, we contribute the most that we can of our budget,” he said. “But we’re just barely putting a dent in the number of people that need truck driver training.”

But the training’s return on investment — producing high-paying jobs in a number of weeks — is something the board wants to continue to capitalize on, Stevens said.

“The limiting factor, for us, has been having the dollars to pay for the training for the participants,” he said. “In previous years, we haven’t had that additional cash injection. We always look for ways to accommodate more drivers that are interested in attending training.”

The grant, funded through the American Rescue Plan’s “Good Jobs Challenge,” is that cash injection, and Stevens’ board was the only Oregon recipient of the jobs challenge program, overseen by the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration.

Funding for training programs

With $3.4 million, the board plans to dole out approximately $900,000 to the Rogue Valley Workforce Partnership, responsible for creating about 100 new truck driving jobs as a result of Driving Prosperity.

“We’ve been doing truck driving training, as well, and we have several schools, including Rogue Community College, who do CDL training — and we have a very cool apprenticeship program — but it’s not enough,” Stafford said. “Now that we have these additional funds, we can pay for a job seeker’s CDL training and license.”

According to statistics provided in the project proposal the workforce board provided to EDA, the median annual wage for a truck driver last year in Jackson or Josephine county was $48,755.

“We can get people out of generational poverty and into high-wage careers,” she said.

Rogue Community College, which already has a commercial truck driving school, will play a role in Driving Prosperity, helping to train new drivers and provide scholarships to pay for their education. RCC has four faculty members training 18 students per term.

“The Southwestern Oregon Workforce Investment Board’s goal is to train 325 new drivers across six counties, and Rogue Community College certainly hopes that we can do our share to grow those numbers,” said Diane Hoover, director of continuing education and workforce development. “Any short-term training that can provide people with an earning wage where they can provide for their families is a good thing. RCC is committed to providing workforce training to members of our Southern Oregon community.”

Stafford added that her workforce partnership’s goal is to increase enrollment for truck-driving schools like RCC because “they are almost all full.”

Grant impact on local trucking companies

Once new truck drivers graduate from training and an apprenticeship, they’ll have a number of trucking companies to apply to, including A&M Transport, Siskiyou Transportation, Combined Transport, Professional Transportation Services, Bettendorf Trucking, Ireland Trucking and Terrain Tamers Chip Hauling.

Those companies “provided commitments to hire specific numbers of truck drivers once they are trained and have obtained licensure,” according to a project narrative found on the Economic Development Administration’s website. Not all representatives from each company responded to inquiries by the Mail Tribune.

But Mike Card, owner of Combined Transport, based in Central Point, confirmed that his company aims to hire up to 50 truckers, each of whom could receive bonuses for signing a hiring contract and practicing safe driving, a salary of up to $60,000, along with health care and vacation benefits.

“I could hire 50 drivers today,” he said, noting that’s the same number of trucks that are vacant on his lot. “We’ve been struggling with getting training done. We have a lot of older drivers that are going to be leaving the industry. We need to train new and younger people, females (and) minorities, too.”

Combined Transport boasts a 500-truck fleet, but for Card, 50 trucks out of work is “too high” given customer demand now.

“In general, we still have customers that are asking us to move loads that we can’t do because we don’t have enough trucks,” Card said.

Having at least 50 new drivers might seem like “a small drop in the pond” for Combined Transport and the trucking industry, but Card said it would help immensely.

“All of my customers would have more on-time and faster deliveries. Their customers will get their materials sooner,” Card said. “The supply chain works better that way.”

Mark Gibson, president of Ashland-based Siskiyou Transportation since 1984, said he’s in a similar situation. While his seven full-time drivers are busy hauling logs and chips from Southern Oregon into Northern California, Gibson is still looking to hire. He believes two employees would do the trick, matching trucks in his lot that have been there for a while.

“I’m definitely in support of it, without a doubt,” Gibson said, referring to the Commerce grant. “(The money) doesn’t go to me, but it benefits the industry. It benefits us all.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.