Sheldon Traver gets pointers on inspecting a trailer from Chemeketa Community College truck driving instructor Mike Cupp, left (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Richard Smith has been driving trucks in the asphalt business for a long time but can’t always get work during the winter off-season.

Drivers are in-demand, but jobs tend to go to those who have a commercial driver’s license. Smith is now studying to get one as part of the first group of students in a new truck driving program at Chemeketa Community College.

“With a CDL, I could get hired any day. They would immediately say, ‘Come to work,’” Smith said.

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Chemeketa administrators rolled out the trucking program this fall in response to demand from local businesses. Many other Oregon community colleges offer CDL training, said Paul Davis, Chemeketa’s director of career technical education.

Before the program opened, the closest training options for a commercial driver’s license were schools in Albany and Clackamas, and those are usually full, said Dean Craig, business services director at Willamette Workforce Partnership.

The partnership is a Salem-based nonprofit organization with federal and state funding to help local workers train for careers in need in the Mid-Willamette Valley. Based on conversations with local businesses, they’ve focused their work on manufacturing, health care, and distribution and transportation.

“If you look up and down the I-5 corridor distribution centers and warehouses are popping up all over the place,” Craig said. “Every single thing that we eat or wear or use was brought to us by a truck at some point.”

Chemeketa’s program is a full-time, month long course preparing students to earn a class A license, which lets them drive a truck and trailer weighing over 26,000 pounds.

Tuition is $4,600, but the Worksource Oregon has so far provided scholarships to students covering most of that cost, with additional grants from Chemeketa covering more.

“They can go through the program and literally just have to pay their DMV fees,” Davis said. As the program grows, the cost will likely increase slightly to be more in line with what other schools charge.

Craig worked with Chemeketa administrators to get the program off the ground, and May Trucking Company donated the trailer.

He said there have been about 7,000 trucking jobs open in the region this year, paying about $45,000 on average.

Students spend the first week in the classroom studying and apply for a learner’s permit, then hit the road with an instructor to learn about inspecting a truck, driving and customer service.

Truck driving students Sheldon Traver, left, and Richard Smith inspect a trailer before a hands-on lesson at Chemeketa Community College (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The hands-on aspect means a small class size: one instructor can teach up to three students. The program’s truck is a commercial rig, modified with two observer seats in the back of the cab instead of bunk beds so a full class can ride along.

The inaugural class is just two.

Sheldon Traver used to be a newspaper reporter but was laid off in 2008. He’s been freelancing since but said it’s harder to find assignments, so he’s switching careers. He found out about truck driving through Chemeketa’s automotive program and hopes to complete the college’s diesel technician training.

“Having my CDL is huge for that,” he said. The license will give him an edge by being able to drive heavy trucks to diagnose problems or check that repairs are working as intended.

Traver also hopes to put his journalism experience to use writing for industry publications.

Mike Cupp, the instructor, is a longtime driver who’s been retired for a few years. He said he wanted to give back to the industry and help train a new generation of drivers.

“It’s fun seeing people really excited about what they’re doing,” he said.

Transportation jobs exist in nearly every industry, so CDL license-holders aren’t limited to long-haul trucking.

“Whatever their interest is in life, they can find a job,” Cupp said.

Craig said he’d like to see the program grow and offer specific training for some in-demand sectors, like garbage and recycling trucks, where drivers must navigate tight corners in residential areas and steer from the right side of the vehicle.

Davis said the college will explore alternative schedules, like evening and weekend classes, for people who can’t dedicate a full month to training. They’re also looking at offering the class at other Chemeketa campuses in the region.

“We can take this classroom anywhere,” Davis said, pointing to the truck.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.