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INA — After a nearly 20-year career as a coal miner, Jason Swallows found himself out of work after the Coulterville mine where he had been working shut down and he was laid off.

Unsure of what to do next, he turned to Rend Lake College and enrolled in its Truck Driver Training Program. It was a tough time in his life, but he found hope in the class. The view from up high turned out to be a welcome change from the many long, grueling hours he’d spent underground.

“I just loved the program,” he said. Swallows completed the course in November 2017 and went to work as an over-the-road trucker. It allowed him to quickly get trained for a new career — the class lasts four weeks — and start earning a paycheck again.

Stories like Swallows' are common, Rend Lake College officials said.

That’s why they are planning to expand the program with a second semi-truck and trailer to specifically serve students living in and near Perry County. 

“This is an exciting opportunity to assist with the shortage of truck drivers by expanding training to our Pinckneyville campus,” said Lori Ragland, vice president of Instruction and Student Affairs at Rend Lake College.

David Nordin worked for 38 years as an interstate trucker before he accepted a position as a CDL instructor at Rend Lake. Truck driving has its challenges, he said. Long days. Weeks away from home. High-stress traffic jams.

But many people love it, or at least learn to appreciate it. “It gets in your blood,” he said.

He tells people considering the program that truck driving is a great way to earn a living if they can stomach the challenges and are willing to work hard.

“It’s real easy to get into, and in high demand. It’s a good career. Most jobs, you start out in the mid-$40s,” he said. Nordin said that three or more recruiters visit every class, and most students have jobs lined up before they’ve passed their test, he said.

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With a few years experience, it is not uncommon for long-distance truckers to make $80,000 or more annually. And though the pay isn’t usually quite as good, there are also a number of local trucking and transport jobs available for people who don't want to go on the road, he said.

Not that it’s easy. Students are trained on a 10-speed manual transmission big rig. The program requires students to master various driving skills, and demonstrate a thorough understanding of safety protocols. “It’s pretty intimidating at first because everybody is used to driving their car, and you’re up so high,” he said. “The toughest thing to do is parallel park.”

But Nordin helps students overcome their fears and feel their way through it. He recalled one particular student who he met with for several hours outside of regular class because he was struggling. With a little extra one-on-one training, the student caught on. Nordin grew emotional talking about a phone call he had recently received from that young man.

“He said, ‘Dave, I just want you to know I love you. You saved me life. You’re like a dad to me.’ I almost teared up on the phone. He got a job. It just makes you feel so good. You’re helping people learn a trade and it just makes you feel good.”

Margo Wagner, dean of Community and Corporate Education at Rend Lake College, said the school hopes to have its second truck purchased and operational by February. To help fund the expansion, the school has received a $193,880 grant from the Delta Regional Authority, a federal-state economic development partnership that serves the counties and parishes that make up the Mississippi Delta region. 

The grant funding will pay for a semi-truck and trailer, as well as a mobile alignment lab and the construction of a paved training lot and outdoor shelter at the Murphy-Wall Campus in Pinckneyville. Rend Lake College will provide $87,000 in grant “matching” funds that will go toward hiring a new instructor, instructor training, supplies, classroom usage and other related expenses.

This will help the school add more classes and offer them closer to home for students who live in and near Pinckneyville. Currently, the school runs a CDL class roughly every six weeks at its Ina campus — three in the fall and spring semesters and two in the summer. Four students make a full class. The low teacher-to-student ratio helps ensure that everyone gets the individualized attention that they need, Nordin said.

The program costs just over $4,200, which includes tuition, fees and textbooks. The program is not eligible for financial aid, but Wagner said that there are options out there that help some students cover all or a portion of the cost. For instance, companies sometimes agree to reimburse expenses upon graduation for drivers who sign up to work with them. Laid off workers may be eligible for job retraining programs that pay tuition. Swallows, the former student, said that’s how his costs were covered when he took the program two years ago.

Swallows said he would encourage anyone who finds themselves out of work or stuck in a low-paying job to consider the truck driver training program. It can turn into a solid, long-term career option, he said. It can also provide an opportunity to make good money for a few years while trying to figure out what’s next. That’s what it ended up being for him.

More recently, Swallows gave up his job as an over-the-road trucker because it was too hard being away from his young son for weeks at a time. He has re-enrolled at Rend Lake College to pursue a nursing degree. But Swallows said he keeps his CDL license active in case he needs it to fall back on again. “It’s nice to have that cushion,” he said.

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molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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