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These HCC students are driven

April 22, 2007|By PEPPER BALLARD

Dodging digital pedestrians and drivers thrown in front of him on a simulated truck driver obstacle course, Hagerstown Community College student Stan Margeson shifted his gears, but slumped when his computer screen's pretend windshield cracked upon impact with a fake car.

It was only Margeson's second attempt behind the wheel of the simulated truck, which is made up of a large computer screen that displays a shifting front-seat landscape, gears, controls, gauges and side computer mirrors, which students eye to practice lane control.

Halfway through his training, Margeson expects to join more than 800 truck drivers who have been trained through Hagerstown Community College's Commercial Vehicle Transportation Program since it began in 1995, program coordinator Bob Simmers said.

At the eighth annual Washington County Business Awards in February, the program was given the "At Your Service" award for "our response to the industry's need for truck drivers," Simmers said.

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"The competition (for jobs) is not as high as the demand," he said.

In response to the shortage, the college applied for and received a three-year, $1.65 million federal grant, which it has used to buy the truck driver simulator and three new Volvo trucks. Plans are in the works to buy three new trailers using the grant.

The college bought three portable classroom buildings on its own, Simmers said. Local companies also have donated equipment to the program.

Fourteen instructors teach three to four drivers apiece throughout the 7 1/2-week program, which is offered throughout the year and on weekends. Of the time spent training, 40 hours is spent in the classroom and the rest is spent on the road, in the simulator or on the range, which is a large parking lot Volvo Powertrain North America has allowed the college to use for the program, which is based behind the plant.

Safety is the most important lesson for the drivers, said Jim Coover, an instructor with more than 50 years of truck driving experience. Three students, including Margeson, are being trained by Coover.

"Defensive driving is big. You have to be ready for the unexpected. You have to be on the defensive all the time," Coover said as his students practiced on the simulator.

Lead instructor Danny Martinez said the simulator does not replace actual road training, but it tests students' reactionary skills without putting themselves or anyone else in danger. It also saves wear and tear on the trucks.

With road work, Martinez said parallel parking often is the first, most challenging part of driving a tractor-trailer for those used to passenger cars, or "four-wheelers."

Coover said students have to be able to complete a pre-trip inspection, checking 156 items on the outside of the truck and 28 items inside, among other tasks truck drivers perform.

The job placement rate out of the program is 95 percent, most with local companies, at an average starting salary of $43,000, Simmers said.

"It's really rewarding to see someone go from unemployed to $43,000 in 7 1/2 weeks," he said.

Recruiters from local trucking companies visit the students in classrooms periodically, Simmers said.

Margeson, 49, of Sharpsburg, who had worked in warehousing and operations, decided to enroll in the program after seeing advertisements for it.

"It was a no-brainer to do this," he said. "This area has such a market for it."

For classmate David Knox, 23, of Hagerstown, switching from working as a loader for FedEx Ground will be more lucrative.

Knox said he's excited about what he's learned so far.

"I'm able to do it. The intimidation is gone," said Knox, who hopes to drive short hauls.

Prospective drivers must have a valid driver's license, be at least 18 years old, pass a Department of Transportation physical and drug screen, and pass a reading test at the college, Simmers said. A high school diploma is not required.

"For someone who really likes to drive, you can make over $100,000 a year," Simmers said. "The more you drive, the more money you make."

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