The Road Ahead: How Advancing Delta Talent Partners Are Training the Next Generation of Commercial Drivers
by CAEL on Jan 25, 2024
By Kari Shafenberg and Monique Tuset
The Advancing Delta Talent (ADT) initiative led by CAEL (Council for Adult and Experiential Learning) with our member partners, Arkansas State University Mid-South (ASU Mid-South) and Coahoma Community College (Coahoma), supports learners in the region seeking education-to-employment pathways that lead to well-paying jobs. Funded by the Delta Regional Authority and U.S. Department of Labor, the initiative strives to expand economic opportunity for diverse populations and economic competitiveness in rural communities. The community colleges, located in Arkansas and Mississippi, respectively, are situated in a massive transportation hub with close proximity to Memphis International Airport, the FedEx World Hub, and the Mississippi river. As of 2023, the American Trucking Association indicates a driver shortage of almost 80,000 people, with that shortage nearly doubling by 2031. Both ASU Mid-South and Coahoma are working to fill this gap with their ADT initiative efforts through their commercial truck driver training programs. Coahoma has offered a commercial truck driver’s license (CDL) program for many years, and ASU Mid-South opened a new program to its first cohort of students in fall 2023.
At Coahoma, students may complete an 8-week or 16-week program, which includes an internship within the industry. Completion of the program at ASU Mid-South requires seven weeks. Both institutions house driving ranges on campus where students can practice driving and learn about truck inspection, federal motor safety, weight station logistics, and how to conduct brake checks. The Advancing Delta Talent initiative supports these programs in different ways. Coahoma students may qualify for tuition-free enrollment, completing their certification without accruing any debt. The program itself is Pell Grant-eligible, and with ADT funding, students can move through their training into their new careers without experiencing financial strain. ASU Mid-South is using its ADT funding to assist students by providing incentives for students who enroll and complete their program and providing graduates with headsets, safety vests, and other helpful roadside equipment.
There are many aspects of a career in commercial driving that might appeal to students. Not only is there a substantial need, all but guaranteeing employment upon completion, but the wages are strong. Between 2020 and 2030, the job opportunities for licensed drivers are set to grow by thousands, with at least a 4% national growth rate, and between 8 and 14% growth in Arkansas and Tennessee. Workers in the region stand to earn an average of $46,000 annually, and nationally may earn up to $49,000. Both member partners reside in persistent poverty communities, and the focus on bringing students into these well-paying positions is important to both institutions. The companies looking to hire drivers are open to students of all ages, genders, and backgrounds.
To understand a bit more about the CDL programs at our partner institutions, CAEL staff engaged CDL instructors from both institutions in a short interview. The CAEL team learned about the instructors’ background, passion for the work, goals they have for their students, and their perspectives on the impact that Advancing Delta Talent may have on their region.
Meet Solomon Gray
Solomon Gray, CDL instructor at Coahoma, has been a truck driver for over 30 years and has been teaching at Coahoma since 2017. Gray says fondly of his work in the industry, “Trucks are a real passion of mine. I was that kid who sat on the bridge doing this [pumping arm] to get them to honk their horn. I’ve been doing that since the age of 5, and now I’m 51, and that fire still burns.” Teaching is a way for Gray to pass the craft forward and to share his experience with students.
Gray sees tremendous growth in the trucking industry, “Any and everything you need has been on a truck at some point in time. Consumers demand, and truckers supply.” The employers in the area are constantly looking for new drivers to meet the need. He jokingly stated: “My phone rings off the hook from employers to hire students even before they’ve finished their program!”
Gray believes the trucking industry is one of the most welcoming industries. Even students who are starting over after legal challenges or individuals looking for a career change can find growth opportunities within trucking. Gray tells his students that this career path is a good fit for those looking for self-directed work, and for those who seek more control of their own time.
Gray believes that Advancing Delta Talent will be extremely beneficial in helping students who have financial need. Being able to share this resource with students as he recruits will be an added bonus on top of the employment prospects, job flexibility, and growth opportunities within the trucking industry.
Meet Homer Laster
Homer Laster, CDL instructor and alumnus of ASU Mid-South, has been a truck driver for over 24 years, and he recently started teaching at Mid-South in 2023. Laster was eager to return to his alma mater and is motivated to pay forward his positive experiences to a new generation of students. Teaching excites Laster because he’s able to “give back to the community and Mid-South, and help [the Delta region] be more competitive by having a [CDL] program at Mid-South.” Laster is looking forward to teaching individuals, both young and old, about the trucking industry.
Laster also acknowledged the immediate need for more truck drivers in the region. “Due to the central location of Interstate 40 and Interstate 55, it is possible to have 30-40,000 trucks come through the area on a daily basis.” With that amount of traffic, students have a great opportunity to jump straight into a lucrative field. Outside of driving trucks for local employers, Homer also mentioned there are options for truck drivers to start their own trucking businesses.
He looks to recruit students to the program who are looking for a career field that has growth opportunities and who are looking to gain new skills. The CDL program will provide students with everything they need to know as well as connect them to local employers who are constantly looking to hire more drivers.
Laster envisions that Advancing Delta Talent will bring more attention to the CDL program and give students access to supplies that are needed to be successful as a truck driver. He hopes he can inspire his future students and help make their lives better today than they were yesterday.
Without question, the instructors at both Coahoma and Mid-South exhibit passion for this industry and are eager to support students on their journey. Through the investment of Advancing Delta Talent dollars, the shared commitment of the two partner institutions, and assistance from CAEL in centering their adult learners, the colleges will continue to make a positive and lasting impact on the lives of students and individuals in the Delta region and beyond.