Southeast loggers, fishers turn to truck-driving class

Posted: Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Michael Jensen of Yakutat, who has worked in the declining logging and fishing industries in Southeast, is looking for a new skill and may find one in the cab of a truck.

Jensen, 47, has enrolled in a new commercial driving class at the Tlingit-Haida Central Council's Vocational Training and Resource Center in Juneau. The class prepares students to be truck drivers.

"I've been trying to go through some vocational (training) because I was a logger and I'm a fisherman now, and I've been trying to figure out some other sources of income," Jensen said. "I can't go back to logging, and fishing isn't what it could be or should be."

The vocational center, called Ha Kaak Has Ka Hidi, or "Our Uncles' House," has contracted for truck-driver classes for the past two years through a moving company. But this year the center decided to buy its own truck and offer the classes itself.

A survey of villages found "immense interest" in classes that would lead to commercial driver's license for what's called Class A, which refers to tractor-trailers, said vocational center director Archie Cavanaugh.

The center's 1990 International single-axle tractor and a 30-foot double-axle trailer, which cost $13,500, were paid for from past income, he said.

A beer company mural was painted on the sides of the tractor. So the vocational center paid to have the sides painted over with Southeast and Tlingit themes, such as salt cod, Pilot bread and Tlingit ceremonial hats.

One of the commercial drivers classes is an introductory, five-day classroom course that prepares students to get a learner's permit from the state. The other is a 10-day commercial driver's license Class A training course that combines classroom work with driving.

Instructor James Sparks, who owns Southeast Mobile Repair and has 22 years of experience as a mechanic and truck driver, tells prospective students to be prepared to work hard.

"Come prepared because it's a short class," Sparks said. "There's a lot of material to consume. There's a lot of hands-on training with the equipment. It's very serious. Come prepared to work hard and learn how to be a professional truck driver."

The state Department of Labor projects that jobs for drivers of heavy and tractor-trailer trucks will rise 9 percent from 2000 to 2010, from 2,525 to 2,753 positions. The agency said the average pay in 2000 for that work was $20.19 an hour.

But Sparks cautioned that it's not easy for a beginner to step into a truck-driving job. And he said the pay in Southeast ranges from $11 an hour to start to $18 or $19 for experienced drivers.

People who have just gotten their commercial driver's license should expect to start at a non-driving job with a company that employs truck drivers, he said.

All of the classes at the vocational center are open to non-Natives as well as Natives.

The driving classes have a number of eligibility requirements. Financial aid may be available.

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