NORFOLK, NE – During the past 15 years, the trucking industry has struggled with a shortage of drivers. While the American Trucking Associations reports the driver shortfall is expected to fall slightly by the end of 2019 from a combination of slower economic growth and a small bump in supply, the combination of a tight labor market and an aging truck driver population is expected to keep the shortage near its peak in 2018.
The non-credit truck driving program at Northeast Community College is providing workforce development training to help fill the gap by providing truck operation, safety and government regulations and necessary record keeping, among other fundamentals.
The program, taught by trainers Ed Lewis and Ryan Cook, both of whom have several years of industry experience, has some new arsenal to better assist students in completing their preparation – a training simulator.
Lewis said the simulator, manufactured by Doron Precision Systems, is a good training tool that can create a number of situations a truck driver will encounter.
“We can simulate a lot of things on here such as a blown tire, back into a dock or run over snow and ice. For example, when it comes to backing up, if a student does it wrong out on our training course with a real truck, we stand a good chance of damaging the truck. Here, I set the reset button and we go again.”
Lewis said the simulator, which is enclosed, replicates the exact size of a full truck cab and includes two seats, allows the student to feel relaxed without worrying about causing any type of damage or injuries.
Cook said the program previously had a shifting simulator and a small driving awareness simulator, which was more of a desktop model.
“They had their benefits, but they were nothing like what the Doron model does,” he said. “This simulator gives students a real feel and movement of being inside. It’s as close as we can get to being in the cab of a real truck itself.”
Both Lewis and Cook put the students on the simulator shortly after the class begins meeting. When it comes to something such as shifting, the instructors can select the type of transmission on the simulator while all the student has to do is drive. If a student shifts incorrectly and is not concentrating while driving a real truck, they could drive off the road and get the vehicle stuck.
“There’s no reset button for that,“ Lewis said.
As part of the lesson, the instructors will monitor the student’s shifting and then critique it. Lewis said as a result, the student is more at ease because they don’t have to worry about damaging the Northeast truck or someone else’s vehicle.
Cook said there is another advantage.
“After driving on the simulator, they are not nearly as nervous as in a real truck. Now I have a more relaxed student since they have done the movements with the shifting and the clutch and everything else on the simulator. It’s just a matter of applying it all to the real truck,” he said. “Anytime you can put the student at ease and get them in an environment they’re familiar with, the learning process speeds up as opposed to throwing them in the deep end and say, ‘Here we are. Let’s go for a drive.’”
Lewis said the simulator also provides more concentrated training for the students.
“In the past, we would drive out to Ainsworth and drive in the hills. That’s three hours out and three hours back. With this, we can still do all of that in a matter a minutes and have the same lesson done. We’ll still go out and drive, but if I have someone who is struggling, I can go over and over and over it again with them in the simulator.”
Cook said if they would be out on the road with a student and see something that needs attention, they come back to simulator to work on it in a controlled environment without any traffic and repeat it until they get it right.
The simulator allows Lewis and Cook to build their own scenarios within the maps it features, such as adding vehicles or other obstacles that a truck driver may encounter.
Northeast has two of the simulators, one on its main campus in Norfolk and the other at the Donald E. Nielsen Career and Technical Education Center in West Point.
The College purchased the simulator on its Norfolk campus while a grant provided the funding for the same equipment in West Point. The latter will be used to teach another segment of the population, students who attend high schools in the Pathways to Tomorrow (P2T) consortium, as well as for college students and industry training.
“This is a great teaching tool,” said Ray Fahey, a trainer for Doron. Fahey said many industries, such police, fire/EMS, construction, military, transit and others are switching over to training simulators.
“Every aspect of driving, whether it’s construction equipment or the trucking industry – anything that is drivable, they are making simulators for because it’s cost effective and companies and schools don’t have to constantly repair their ‘teaching trucks.’ Students make all of their mistakes on a simulator and then when they get in the real trucks, they have better sense as to what they need to do.”
The Northeast instructors said the simulator has been a great tool to work with.
Cook said some people think that it looks like a big video game, which has elements of that, “but if they understood how much of a tool of learning it is and how well it works in teaching our students, they would not consider it a big video game at all, but look at it as another piece of training equipment for teaching and learning that allows our students to progress quickly,” he said.
With the shortage of drivers nationwide, the industry provides opportunities for a steady income if students are committed to the work.
Cook said if they have a good student come through and qualify for employment, the student has four or five job offers by the time they complete the class, which can start at $50-60,000 a year.
“That’s pretty good for just starting out,” he said.
While Cook and Lewis see more relaxed students due to the simulator, the same can probably be said for them.
“The stress level goes down a little bit,“ Cook said. “Although we’re still in the infancy of using the simulator, we can see that it is starting to speed up the process for the students. In the long run, it is definitely going to increase the success of our students and reduce the wear and tear on our equipment. We’re able to expose them to more elements and simulation, which will better prepare them for the industry.”
Ryan Cook, a truck driving trainer at Northeast Community College, demonstrates one of the program’s new driving simulators recently. Simulators are located on the Northeast campus in Norfolk and at the Donald E. Nielsen Career and Technical Education Center in West Point.