In-house training has proven to be the answer for public works departments that have difficulty finding qualified equipment operators and truck drivers. The driver shortage problem appears to be regional.
“We do have trouble finding drivers and operators,” said John Richardson, utility systems operations manager for the Water Distribution Department in Tulsa, Okla. “We have given up on finding people who already have their commercial driver's license. We have a training program in-house. I have a training crew leader, Justin Harger, who does all of our in-house training.”
Water Distribution employs 62 field employees, and each of them has a commercial driver's license, class A (CDLA). That means they can drive the largest tractor-trailer rigs on the road.
Tulsa's Water Distribution Department trains people from the ground up. Very few of the entrants come in with a CDL. “We have a backhoe school, and guys request to go to it,” said Richardson. “Ninety percent of our heavy-equipment operators came from the ranks of our crew workers. It's a promotion up from the crew worker level.”
Entry-level personnel go to work on the training crew, which employs up to six or seven trainees working alongside experienced employees. They learn all types of water facility maintenance, including how a fire hydrant works, how to perform safe trenching, how to notify customers of problems, how to change a water meter, and how to fix a break in the line. Training is a combination of classroom and field work. “It takes four to seven weeks for the whole class,” said Richardson.
To train people for a CDL, Tulsa has a closed area for driver training and maintains a truck for the purpose, although it's used for other purposes as well. It's a tandem-axle truck, made to pull a trailer.
“Yes, absolutely, we've had good luck with the people we train,” said Richardson. “I cannot think of one new hire who didn't go on to get his CDL.”
By contrast, the city of Wichita, Kan., has no problems finding drivers and operators. “We routinely hire people with CDLs,” said Tammy Penland, a human resource specialist for the city's Human Resource Department. “We probably hired close to 25 drivers and operators last year in the Department of Public Works.”
The city used its Web site to accept applications for a laborer's position—and 127 people applied within a week. “We've hired four people and I'm getting ready to hire seven more,” Penland said. “People who have a CDL get preference.
“If they don't have a CDL, and we hire them, they have 60 days to get it,” she said. “We provide a truck and a training program. We have a safety officer who conducts training.”
The city of Akron, Ohio, also has little difficulty finding drivers with CDLs, said Joe Asher, highway maintenance superintendent, Department of Public Works. “Even when we hire semi-skilled laborers, we require that they have a CDL, and a vast majority of them have a CDL when they come here,” he said. “They may not have a Class A CDL, but we try to upgrade them to a Class A.”
The city has a closed truck-driving course and a dedicated training truck. Once a driver gets his permit to drive on the highway, he undergoes training with a CDL driver seated in the passenger side. “We may train 10 or 12 people at the same time,” said Asher.
—Daniel C. Brown is a freelance writer in Des Plaines, Ill.