Part of the fun in high school is getting a drivers license and testing your first set of wheels on the streets.
Some students at Patterson High School in western Stanislaus County are learning the basics of driving large commercial trucks and are aiming for big paychecks.
PHS is one of the first high schools in the nation to launch a truck driving program for students. Eight seniors began the yearlong program in August and the seven who remain are getting 180 hours of instruction in driving skills, safety standards and inspections.
In the classroom Wednesday, students were seated in advanced simulators that teach them to shift a 10-speed transmission, maintain a safe distance behind cars and make turns at signalized intersections.
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The two Advanced Training Systems, complete with engine noise and different road situations on screen, also have simulations for backing a truck coupled with a 50-foot trailer.
Ricky Beltran, a student in the program, said he prefers hands-on training to sitting at a desk in the classroom. He has adopted a motto, “Go big or go home”. Beltran said, “I like the big trucks. When they offered the class, I decided to give it try.”
Dave Dein, program coordinator and instructor, said the sprawling complex of logistics and distribution centers near Interstate 5 in Patterson make the truck-driving program a logical fit for the high school.
But Dein, who also is thinking big, said programs like this could help address the nationwide shortage of truck drivers.
The Patterson Unified School District secured technical education funding for the elective program and got a deal on the training simulators, which range in price from $70,000 to $150,000. Industry partners who regularly hire drivers, including Morning Star Trucking, Penske Logistics, Foster Farms and Northern Refrigerated Transportation, have representatives on the program’s advisory board.
“A lot students don’t realize you can make over $100,000 a year driving a truck,” said Dein, a former truck driver.
According to Indeed.com, the average salary for drivers is more than $65,000 a year, but annual earnings between $70,000 and $80,000 are common for veteran drivers, and truckers are seeing hefty raises as companies compete for the limited supply of drivers.
Research has shown that every hour of training on the simulator is the equivalent of 2.4 hours’ training in a truck.
Two career paths are laid out for students completing the program and their senior year of high school. One leads to no-cost, behind-the-wheel training from Morning Star Trucking of Los Banos and a possible summer job hauling tomatoes for the company, with potential earnings of $12,000 to help pay for college.
Those graduates will possess a limited license for driving Morning Star trucks with automatic transmissions designed for fuel economy and less maintenance.
A second option for graduates is the school district’s adult education program and real world driver training from Green Valley Truck School of Modesto. Adult education funds are available for paying the tuition.
The other private-sector partners supporting the high school program are poised to hire graduates and further develop their driving skills through company-based mentorship.
Student Alan Godinez said he joined the program in hopes of going far in the industry. He’s from a family of truck drivers and hopes to earn college money this summer for getting a degree in construction management. He has ambitions of owning a trucking business.
“I’ve wanted to be a truck driver for a long time,” Godinez said. “Our family has a construction company in Martinez in the Bay Area and I have (family members) who drive Peterbilt trucks.”
When he was a young adult, Dein drove trucks to support himself while studying for a degree in business administration at California State University, Stanislaus, and then worked as a driver-manager for a manufacturing company.
He said he logged 700,000 miles without an accident and then became a elementary school teacher. Dein founded a nonprofit driving school and ministry called Faith Logistics in Turlock that taught former prison inmates to drive tractor-trailer rigs.
Truck driving is one vocation where people with criminal records can find employment. “They had everything from theft to manslaughter (on their criminal records),” Dein said. “One thing they had in common is they had felt like a failure in school and it carried over into adult life.”
Dein believes the driver shortage could be dramatically reduced if the Patterson program was replicated in counties across the country. One study estimated the U.S. trucking industry is short about 50,000 drivers and the deficit could grow to 174,000 in less than 10 years.
Marcus Chavez, a coordinator for Morning Star, said he’s eager to know how much the training simulators will reduce the amount of over-the-road training that the high school graduates will require.
He expects some graduates of the Patterson program will interview with Morning Star and be selected for behind-the-wheel training. The company is talking with an insurance carrier about covering 18-year-old drivers who get their Class A license and complete 50 to 60 hours of company training.
“You can get a Class A license at 18 and then find it's hard to get a truck-driving job because insurance companies won’t insure those drivers,” Chavez said. “This last year, we had a new carrier that did not want to take anyone under 21.”
Chavez noted that working with a classroom simulator is not the same as climbing into the cab of a semi.
“Some people get in the truck and it’s a whole different perspective,” Chavez said. “If the nerves don’t go away and they don’t feel comfortable with time, then it’s a red flag that driving is not for them.”
Morning Star is also working with the Patterson school district’s adult school class to get them started in the industry. The company supports the program to see if it’s a possible solution to the driver shortage, Chavez said.
Part of the high school program is teaching the proper way to open the engine hood or pull the lever on the fifth wheel to avoid work-related injuries. Students are taught to perform pre-trip inspection of wheel hubs, breaks and numerous other items.
Dein also provides the class with a look at technological advances in the industry, whether it’s powertrains driven by hydrogen and electricity or self-driving trucks.
He believes that truck driving should be promoted to even younger students in middle schools and elementary schools.