From the Daily Record By Tyler Douglas
The vast majority of the Sandhills is located within a tangle of busy highways. In almost every direction there is a heav- ily traveled thoroughfare — the hustle and bustle of central North Carolina. For many area motorists, driving the buzzing veins of Interstate 95 or U.S. 421 everyday is nothing more than a commute to work, but for Roadmaster Truck Driving School in Dunn that commute is the work.
“The economy has suffered in the last few years, but the trucking industry has a dire need (for drivers). The industry isn’t going anywhere. Remember — there’s not a thing in this room or on our backs or in your refrigerator that’s not moved by a truck at some point,” said school director Gary Johnson.
Inside the Roadmaster building, a large poster of a white semi-truck hangs on the wall behind Mr. Johnson’s desk, emblazoned with the slogan “An Office With A View.”
“Like a lot of our students here, I started in the trucking industry because I was married with two kids and it was tough to find a good income. Making the money I wanted to make to support my family,” he explained. However, not everyone can just climb into an expensive big rig, pop it into gear and hit the open road — it is much more com- plicated than that. Truck drivers must earn their federal Commercial Driver Li- cense (CDL) to begin work — that is where a training facility like Roadmaster comes in.
The school along South Clinton Avenue opened in 2007 after purchasing a smaller operation at the site. Roadmasterisalargecom- pany with 13 schools nationwide, but the Dunn location is the orga-nization’s only facility in North Carolina and serves the entire state.
Mr. Johnson has been director since 2008.
“(Students) go on to work for major carriers and they get to stay in their home state. Jobs that not only afford them benefits, but a pretty significant salary for an entry level position,” he said.
The Roadmaster course is extensive, covering every aspect needed to obtain a federal CDL. The program is a state-mandated 160 hours that is spread out be- tween 16 days over four weeks. After 40 hours of class work is completed, the remainder is spent in-truck for hands-on training.
“We put students on the inter- state, the back roads, through the city in light and heavy traffic. We want to get them out there in sev- eral different experiences,” ex- plained Mr. Johnson. “We qualify every student. Most of them are either underemployed, unem- ployed or want to build a career because they have an interest in trucking. Before they are en- rolled, we make sure they are good candidates and they meet the qualifications.”
The Roadmaster course takes 160 hours to complete with 40 hours devoted to class work. Above, a typical class reviewing trucking manuals. Dunn’s Roadmaster school graduated 600 students into trucking careers in 2014.
“Students have only 16 days to learn everything and some people have never even driven a manual transmission,” said Mr. Jernigan.
“Or had a trailer hooked be- hind a vehicle,” added instructor George Thomas with a chuckle, poking his head inside Mr. Jerni- gan’s office. Mr. Thomas has been a truck driver since 1972.
There’s a lot to learn — how to drive safely, how to shift gears properly, how to use the RPM gauge to one’s advantage, the parts of an engine, the basic pro- cedure before leaving for a desti- nation and — this one’s a doozy for a lot students — backing up.
“Sometimes people get flus- tered and frustrated — stall trucks in the middle of an inter- section, things like that. We’ve had a lot of guys from Special Forces and different branches of the military — I’m prior Navy myself — and they get shot at all the time, but they start sweating trying to tell me about the pre- trip check of the truck,” said Mr. Jernigan. “I’m like ‘man, come on, you were just in Afghanistan four months ago. This isn’t hard, just think about it like it’s your car.’ You’ve got to help them relax a lot of times.”
Luckily, Fayetteville’s Patrick James, a senior student set to graduate soon, finds driving a semi-truck relaxing.
“I have family that has been driving trucks for over 30 years — two uncles. It’s a good job,” he said. “I’ve been driving a stick for a long time, but have never driven a semi. It helped me to just ob- serve the instructors here and watch them. At first you’re kind of nervous behind the wheel, but you do get comfortable after awhile, once you get the feel of it.”
However, Mr. James did find the business of backing up to be the most challenging aspect.
“The hardest thing for me is the (backing) at 90-degrees and offset, because you have to know that truck and which way you’re drifting for the turn. If not, you’re going to be all off course,” he ex- plained.
Offset backing involves back- ing into one lane from an adjacent lane without hitting anything and 90 degree backing involves start- ing at a 90-degree angle, then backing the truck up straight, working with little space.
Not that Mr. James should be worried.
“He’s one of the best students I’ve ever seen,” said Mr. Jernigan. “He’s going to come back here and take my job.”
“I’m excited to get started,” continued Mr. James. “This is a good opportunity and it enables youtoseealotoftheworldas you’re doing your job.”
The trucking industry enjoys a rare job security that has long since disappeared in many busi- ness sectors, said Mr. Johnson.
Like any career, many entry level drivers must begin with long distance driving or “over the road” experience. To rise within the ranks and earn a coveted re- gional job, rookie drivers will of- ten have to trek multi-state trips for a few years, but not as long as one may think, he added.
“The opportunity is there, but I will be the first to tell you that not everybody is cut out to be a pro- fessional driver. It’s not the easi- est thing in the world, but the ones that (become drivers) are successful and that’s the majori- ty,” said Mr. Johnson. “I went through training just like my stu- dents did and what I really liked aboutit—andIdomissthis—I had an office with a view.”
Last year, Dunn’s Roadmaster school graduated 600 students into trucking careers.