ECC truck driving program aims to offer students good future career


lance lagoni

First-year student Gerardo Hernandez at the wheel of a Mercedes diesel semitrailer.

Camryn Cutinello, Staff Writer

You see semis on the roads every day, you see them parked in the A lot of campus, but have you ever wondered what it actually takes to get behind the wheel of one of those trucks.

The Elgin Community College truck driving program trains students on how to drive those massive trucks. The program includes 320 hours of classroom and road times, teaching students all the skills they need to get their Commercial Drivers License (CDL).

Driving a semitrailer may not be the career that someone often envisions, but it is a well paying, steady job with multiple openings.

“Driving is a very good job for someone who is dependable and careful,” said Donald Anderson, director of the truck driving program. “The starting wage is very good and you can support a family on it. It also is very steady, even when the economy, in general, is not doing the greatest. Food and materials still need to move no matter what the economy is doing.”

In an economy where many students have difficult times finding jobs in their fields after graduation, truck drivers have little to no difficulty finding work.

“The demand for drivers is so great now that students have multiple job offers upon graduating,” Anderson said. “Having multiple offerings allows students to find the job that fits their needs rather than just taking any job. It has no gender or age limits and all are welcome, and encouraged, to join the profession. It is a profession where, in general, the only limits anyone has are the limits that they put on themselves.”

Despite not having any age or gender requirements, trucking is still a male-dominated profession. According to Ellen Voie, president, and CEO of the Women in Trucking Association, less than seven percent of truck drivers are women.

“The whole industry has been trying to get more female drivers,” Anderson said.

In a given year, Anderson will only see about 10-20 percent of his class being female, a number that he would like to see raised.

“We would like to see more females get into this profession, it’s still very male-dominated,” Anderson said. “Anybody can do it. It doesn’t require any stature or strength, anyone can do it.”

To get a sense of what the class was like, I attended one.

When I arrived, the students were out in the parking lot getting a demonstration from a company. Anderson told me that companies send recruiters often, but demonstrations are rare. The company was XPO Logistics, who use a double trailer setup, something that is not covered in the ECC curriculum.

The students were shown how to hook up both trailers properly by the demonstrator, an XPO logistics employee named Paul Eaton, a former student of the ECC truck driving program.

“I owned my own business for 16 years and about 7 years ago when the economy went bad I tried to come up with some options and my wife teaches at ECC so I said you know what, I’m going to get my CDL as a backup in case things get bad and I need to do something else,” Eaton said. “Once I got my CDL I realized I actually enjoyed it.”

Eaton’s been driving for XPO Logistics ever since and says he could not ask for a better job.

“It’s very laid back. I go out and do my thing, I don’t have to think about anything other than my responsibilities,” Eaton said. “There’s really no downside.”

After observing the demonstration, I was allowed to do a ride along with a student driver. The student was Gerardo Hernandez, whose dad is a truck driver; Hernandez is in school to join the family business.

Before any trucks leave the lot, students have to check the truck. It’s not as simple as putting your keys in and starting the engine.

Hernandez popped the hood to check the oil. The engine was massive. After about ten more steps, it was time to get in the truck. There were four seats in the truck, with more room then I expected. Hernandez then started the “cab check,” which included at least 20 steps.

After everything passed the test, it was take off time. The truck has 10 forward gears, that were constantly getting changed, making the ride very bumpy and my notes very messy. Just to stop, Hernandez had to drop from eighth gear to fifth gear, one at a time.

Being in the truck makes you feel very tall and very small at the same time. We went down Spartan road onto Randall, then turned on South Street to get back to the school.

The teacher giving direction was George Benbery, also a former student of ECC. Benbery has around 40 years of experience in the transportation industry, 23 of those driving semis after graduating from the ECC truck driving program in 1995.

“It was time to get back, I got a good career out of it,” Benbery said. “Coming to teach at ECC was a second career move for me. I was in transportation all along, I was a driver. I could help them out, it’s a way to get back.”

Benbery primarily helps the students while they’re driving on the roads, and hopes more people will look into the program.

“You get a really good foundation, a good basis,” Benbery said.

Driving a truck may seem scary to many, including myself, but Anderson says that anyone can learn.

“Above all, you must be dedicated to being a safe driver on the roads,” Anderson said. “Companies value safety above all else. Drivers must constantly evaluate their surroundings and be able to react immediately to situations that come up. You also need to be a good decision maker. You are out there by yourself with no one watching over you. This puts the burden on you to make the right decisions. You must be able to process information quickly in your mind and react accordingly. Your workplace is the roadways and it is constantly changing.”

The ECC truck driving program is always accepting new students, so Anderson encourages people to look into it.

“The most rewarding thing is getting paid well for doing a good job,” Anderson said. “Safely and skillfully completing your job and providing for your family is a great reward. It’s a job that pays for performance.”