July 23–CHAMPAIGN — Truck driving isn’t an easy job.
“I stayed away from home 300 days a year,” Sherry Jenkins said. “I stayed out 30, came home for four. I did that for 14 years.”
Jenkins eventually retired, got bored and became an instructor for Parkland College’s semitrailer-truck training program. For about three years, Parkland has contracted with 160 Driving Academy, which teaches classes around the Midwest.
Despite the time away from home, Jenkins said, she loved driving a truck.
“There’s a lot to learn, it’s complicated, it’s stressful, but it’s not always that,” she said. “And once you get it, it’s fun.”
She also loves to travel and as a trucker, made it to every state except Hawaii and Alaska.
“I have 1.6 million miles logged accident-free,” she said. “And you get to see all the different cultures in our country. It’s a big country. There’s lots of different kinds of people, different lifestyles, different weather. The weather is beautiful, and I like being outside. I got to really know our country.”
During the four-week truck driving course, which prepares students for their commercial driver’s license exam, students take their first 40 hours in the classroom, then 120 hours in the truck.
Parkland uses part of the parking lot at Rural King near North Prospect Avenue, where they have Parkland-branded trailers.
“Today it’s an eight-hour class,” Jenkins said Wednesday.
In the morning, they inspect their truck.
“They have to know all the parts to the vehicle. They have to understand the air brakes. They have to know how to check their systems, the brakes, the air, all that,” Jenkins said.
Then they practice different tests in the Rural King parking lot.
“A straight-back, an offset and a parallel park,” she said.
From there, they practice driving a truck on the road.
“I have to teach them how to double clutch a ten-speed and drive on the highway,” she said.
Benjamin Briddick, Urbana, said the class was pretty difficult at first.
“It’s hard, but then it gets easy once you know what you’re doing,” he said. “I’ve never driven stick before, so driving stick is new to me.”
Briddick has worked for a real estate company and a restaurant. He doesn’t necessarily want to become a trucker, but decided a CDL could come in handy.
“I had the time and the money, and I’d love to get a CDL. It’s always good to have,” he said. “I just like having a lot of options. You never know what you’ll find.”
Ricky Williams, Champaign, is taking the class to hopefully make a little more money.
“It’s a great opportunity to travel, and it’s a good financial step in life,” he said. “I’ve got experience in a lot of other jobs, driving a fork lift, working in factories, in restaurants. Going through the job process online, this just pops out.”
In four weeks, drivers can get a CDL and are nearly guaranteed a decent-paying job, 160 Driving Academy Founder Steve Gold said, due to a shortage of truckers.
“For those who are qualified, they can get a job,” Gold said. “The average student who graduates from us makes $40,000.”
The course costs about $4,500, and Gold said it’s worth it.
“That’s a pretty good return,” he said. “Most people who come to us, they’re under-employed, flipping burgers, picking products in a warehouse, whatever it might be.”
Additionally, students have a variety of funding options to help cover the costs.
Jenkins said she loves teaching the course and seeing her students learn.
“It’s a very difficult class. It’s intensive,” she said. “When people come into the class, they look at that big truck and are intimidated. … I love it because I get in there with them and teach them how to do this, and when they pass, they’re just thrilled.”
America’s 3.5 million truckers transport about 70 percent of the nation’s freight, according to the American Trucking Association.
“It’s an honorable profession,” Jenkins said. “Nobody gets anything without trucks. Without trucks, America stops. So they’re important, and they’re needed.”
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