Help wanted for 400 jobs, and more

What would happen if an out-of-state employer was prepared to build a factory in Arkansas and pay 500 people a starting salary of $50,000 a year – but was having trouble finding the employees?

The state of Arkansas and the local community would pull out all the stops for that $25 million annual payroll. After ensuring the industrial park had adequate water, wastewater and electrical connections, there might be an offer of state-financed employee training. Then there would be a big press announcement with the governor, the mayor and the plant manager.

What if I told you a similar opportunity already exists with one of Arkansas’ established employers, immediately, with no need for a factory?

Here’s what Steve Williams, CEO of North Little Rock-based Maverick Transportation, told me about his trucking company’s situation.

“I’d go out and buy, easily go out and buy 500 trucks … and have more than enough business for those people to haul. I just can’t find 500 people to train to put in the trucks to do that. It’s literally, they do not exist.”

Because he can’t find enough drivers, Williams is buying about 100 trucks, leaving unfilled 400 jobs with starting salaries of about $50,000 a year. Some truck drivers earn $80,000.

Maverick Transportation is not the only trucking company looking for drivers. The American Trucking Associations estimates that the industry will need to find about a million in the next 10 years. There are many trucking companies in Arkansas. Those trucks also have to be maintained and repaired.

A person can go from unemployed to a truck driving job offer in 20 weeks at a cost of $10,400. That’s what it takes to earn a commercial driver’s license at the Diesel Driving Academy in Little Rock. Barry Busada, senior vice president, said many motor carriers will reimburse drivers for the cost of that tuition after hiring them.

I’ve oversimplified this situation. Many long-distance truck drivers are away from home a couple of weeks at a time, which is why turnover at many carriers is 100 percent a year. New government enforcement mechanisms have reduced the labor pool by forcing carriers to hire only drivers with clean records, which is not a bad thing.

Still, truck driving is a solid, middle class job requiring a skill that can be gained in 20 weeks. Very few college graduates make that kind of money after four or five years of a taxpayer-financed university education.

Two thoughts. First, jobs out there, even in this economy, and not just in trucking.

Second, Arkansas’ education system and workforce policies should be about filling jobs as much as creating them. Yes, Arkansas should nurture high-tech companies and the so-called “jobs of the future.” But Maverick is ready to hire 400 people now, and those jobs don’t require constructing college classrooms or remaking the K-12 public education system. Plus, truck driving jobs can’t be outsourced to China. Diesel Driving Academy students are eligible for federal student aid. Could Arkansas also create or at least encourage truck driving scholarships or loans?

This is not just about driving trucks. It’s about the value Arkansas places on work that doesn’t require a desk or a college degree. In the recent fiscal session, Sen. Jane English, R-Little Rock, changed her vote on the private option from a no to a yes as part of a deal to revamp the state’s workforce training system. English, who has worked years in this field, says the current system is too duplicative, too inefficient, and doesn’t meet the needs of employers or workers. Young people are not encouraged to work in skilled, blue-collar jobs. People aren’t being trained for the jobs that actually are out there.

That would include truck driving, where 400 people could make $50,000 a year, if Maverick Transportation could only find them.

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