Driving to succeed: New CDL training schools open career options

Behind-the-wheel trainer Donny Bergonzini sits in a truck at the Alaska Driving Academy in Sterling on Thursday. Bergonzini, who has 19 years experience in the oil industry, provides commercial driver’s license training at the recently opened academy. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

For those looking to get into one of Alaska’s heavy industries — from oil and gas to construction to trucking — a commercial driver’s license is often a must-have.

 

For example, Soldotna-based company Best Transit Mix, which specializes in concrete mixing, typically expects applicants to have a CDL before they are hired.

“We don’t necessarily hire somebody and then send them to training,” said manager Megan Swanson. “If you’re going to apply for a job, you do have to have a CDL.”

But CDL training and testing has been challenging for many in the community, Swanson said. Without any training schools on the peninsula, local job seekers have had to look elsewhere. Taking a course in a place like Anchorage requires transport, housing, food and time off work. Many entering the industry also don’t have their own trucks or equipment.

“Not everybody has those kind of funds laying around,” Swanson said.

The Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles requires a commercial driver’s license for anyone driving a vehicle, truck or trailer that together weigh more than 26,000 pounds.

A CDL is also required for drivers of vehicles carrying 16 or more passengers or when a driver is transporting hazardous materials. To get a CDL, drivers must first get a learner’s permit, practice with a qualified driver and pass a road test using their own equipment.

Until a few years ago, people looking to get tested for a license could go to the local DMV, but had to use their own equipment.

“You had to have everything all ready to go for the DMV,” Swanson said. “That was what was hard for people — to get the equipment.”

The local DMV no longer offers even that option, making the barrier to entry even higher.

“It’s an expensive venture,” said Donny Bergonzini, who has worked at Schlumberger Oilfield Services for 19 years, said.

Bergonzini is a behind-the-wheel trainer Alaska Driving Academy, which is one of two recently opened driver’s schools offering CDL training and testing on the peninsula.

The academy began offering class D classes and road exams in 2017, and added CDL training and testing in February.

Bergonzini said many jobs in the oil industry now require a CDL, as well as additional qualifications for handling hazardous materials.

“Everybody who comes through here is trying to get a job in the field,” he said.

The academy’s director of operations, Chris Lisenby, worked in the trucking industry, and saw the need for drivers to get training, testing and renewals locally.

“It was very inconvenient for anyone in the community to get training,” Lisenby said.

Located in the back roads of Sterling, the 8-acre training facility has five employees, and averages about 40 examinations per month. Much of the business so far has been for regular driver’s licenses, but they’re also seeing a steady uptick in training and testing for commercial licenses.

“We have been absolutely booked,” Lisenby said.

Additionally, Kenai Peninsula Driving Instruction offers CDL training. The company, which opened in February 2017, provides everything from one-day refreshers courses to 148 hours of instruction.

“We can take anyone from beginner to teaching someone to drive a tractor trailer,” owner Alex Douthit said.

Douthit, who also worked for Schlumberger, said a local driver training school can help those looking to work on the North Slope.

“There are careers out there for people who are willing to put effort forward to become a certified driver,” Douthit said.

The company currently has three commercial driver instructors, and an instructor who specializes in class D licenses.

Because the Kenai school is local, those who can’t take days or weeks off for training can spread out their training.

“It might take them a month, but they can stay employed while they’re doing that,” Douthit said.

Beyond providing job training, the companies are keeping dollars close to home, Tim Dillon, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, said.

“That money stays on the peninsula,” he said.

Reach Erin Thompson at ethompson@peninsulaclarion.com.

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