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With truck drivers in demand, incentive program for training is expanded in Virginia

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With the trucking industry still facing a labor shortage, a new push is underway to recruit and train more truck drivers in Virginia.

The Virginia Trucking Association, an industry trade group, has started a driver recruitment pilot program in partnership with Virginia Ready, a nonprofit that provides financial incentives for Virginia residents to get training in high-demand trade skills.

Among the goals of the program are to train and hire 100 truck drivers in 100 days and continue to recruit prospective drivers to attend commercial driver training schools at Virginia’s community colleges.

Under the Virginia Ready Initiative, people can get a $1,000 cash incentive payment if they enroll in and complete a truck driver training program at a Virginia community college, and then pass the test to obtain a commercial driver’s license.

“This is one solution to a problem that the whole industry is facing,” said J. Ward Best, vice president of Atlantic Bulk Carrier, a Charles City County trucking company and one of eight trucking companies participating in the pilot program.

Best, who also serves as president of the Virginia Trucking Association, said this is the most difficult hiring environment he has seen in 26 years.

The American Trucking Association estimates the industry is facing a shortage of about 80,000 drivers nationwide. “That number is only going up,” Best said.

“A lot things happened during the pandemic,” he said. “The truck-driving schools had to shut down. We are an older industry just by demographics, and a lot of folks said ‘this is a good time for me to retire.’”

At the same time, the demand for transportation of goods rebounded quickly after the initial business shutdowns caused by the pandemic.

“So, while people were leaving the industry, we did not have that pipeline of people coming into the industry,” Best said Wednesday during a meeting with leaders of the Virginia Ready program.

The Virginia Trucking Association did not disclose how much money it is putting into the incentive program, though Best described it as “a strategic investment in both time and money” for trucking companies, which “compares very favorably to ongoing expenses related to their recruiting efforts.”

The median pay for tractor-trailer drivers in the Richmond area is more than $54,000, but industry professionals say drivers can earn a lot more than that — even six-figure annual sums — depending on their experience and the routes they travel.

Truck driving requires a commercial driver’s license, or CDL, which is issued by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. It takes about 160 hours of training to earn a CDL, including 40 hours in the classroom and 120 hours of hands-on training.

The Virginia Ready Initiative was started in 2020 to encourage Virginia residents who had lost their jobs in the pandemic to return to school at community colleges for trade skills.

A coalition of 25 businesses across the state is providing financial backing for the nonprofit.

“The mission is to rapidly re-skill Virginians for in-demand jobs,” said Taylor Beck, manager of partnerships for Virginia Ready.

Participants in the program get $1,000 payments after completing courses and passing credential exams in the Virginia Community College System’s Fast Forward program. The program offers short-term training classes — typically six to 12 weeks — in such fields as medical and nursing assistance, phlebotomy, computer systems support, plumbing, pipefitting, welding, truck driving and electrical power line installation and repair, among others.

“Virginia Ready originally was founded to serve those that were unemployed because of the pandemic,” Beck said. “But in June 2021, we decided to help anybody, unemployed and underemployed. So we expanded our eligibility.”

Since the Virginia Ready Initiative started, about 3,400 people have completed courses at community colleges though the program, Beck said. Roughly 850 have enrolled in CDL programs, and about one-third of those have completed those courses so far.

“CDL has always been a part of the Virginia Ready program, but this is the first time we have had a partner that is hiring CDL drivers,” Beck said. “Now, we have got VTA backing us up and facilitating these relationships with the employers.”

The goal now is to enroll more people in the CDL programs at the 21 community colleges across the state that offer them.

In the Richmond area, CDL classes are offered through Brightpoint Community College — formerly John Tyler Community College — and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.

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