Safety & Sustainability
The Yellow Team | Sept. 28, 2022
When students enter the classroom at the Yellow CDL Driving Academy in Salt Lake City, the first thing they see is a wall lined with 50 photos of academy graduates proudly holding their certifications.
The academy’s trainers have regularly updated their “wall of honor” with new, smiling faces since the facility opened in early 2021.
“It’s a huge motivator,” said Hector Scolari, a Class A CDL instructor in Salt Lake City. “When people start here, I say to them, ‘Yeah, you want to be on that wall?’”
Salt Lake City is one of 22 Driving Academies that Yellow has opened across the United States over the past two years. These academies are producing a new generation of professional drivers by training them the Yellow way, with a focus on safety, service and respecting the rules of the road.
By the end of 2022, Yellow plans to expand to even more states and terminal-hosted academies, with a goal of training 1,000 new CDL drivers for the year. The focus for 2023 will be to train even more drivers at each of the academy locations. Yellow’s goal is to grow the overall population of applicants for commercial driver’s licenses.
Yellow currently has 22 Driving Academies across 17 states.
Many trucking companies offer CDL training for aspiring drivers, but the students usually pay the tuition.
At Yellow, student drivers not only receive four weeks of CDL training tuition-free, they are also paid an hourly wage by the company while they train. Additionally, Yellow pays for the students’ lodging and transportation, and provides a per diem to cover meals and other costs.
“All your expenses are paid. There’s no out-of-pocket whatsoever,” said Brian Keefer, a CDL trainer at Yellow’s Hagerstown, Md. Driving Academy. “That’s very unusual for this industry.”
The reward after successfully completing four weeks of training and earning a CDL? A career as a linehaul or pick-up and delivery driver with union pay and excellent benefits. There’s also the work-life balance of a schedule that keeps Yellow drivers closer to home than those who work for most other carriers.
“We offer drivers the opportunity to spend more time with family than other companies,” said Jennifer Kettner, a driving instructor at Yellow’s Fort Worth Academy. “When I started driving for an over-the-road carrier, Yellow was one of the companies we looked at as our end goal, and these students get to start here.”
Tracy Walker, Yellow’s director of safety training, has overseen the expansion of the Driving Academies over the past year. She said the program is unique in trucking not only because of the benefits it provides, but also for the range of driving jobs at a carrier with one of the best driver retention rates in the industry.
“We absolutely want them to be a part of the Yellow team,” she said. “As they go through the Academy, our students realize that this is an amazing organization to be a part of.”
The first class for Yellow’s new Driving Academy in Tracy, Calif.
Getting paid while receiving tuition-free training are strong incentives for starting a truck driving career. Yellow launched the Driving Academy program in 2021 not only to add new drivers to its fleet, but to introduce truck driving to a broader audience.
That’s important due to a shortage of skilled truck drivers that grows each year. The American Trucking Associations estimates the U.S. economy needs an additional 80,000 drivers – a number that could double to 160,000 by 2030.
Put simply, America needs more truckers. Each of Yellow’s Driving Academies is certified as a U.S. Department of Labor apprenticeship program, which strives to provide on-the-job training for workers as they prepare for jobs that are in high demand. Yellow has also taken an active role in the “Trucking Action Plan,” an initiative by President Joe Biden’s administration to strengthen supply chains by increasing the number of highly skilled semi-truck drivers.
“Training our drivers is simply the best way to tackle the driver shortage in America,” said Tamara Jalving, Yellow’s vice president of safety and talent acquisition.
The students enrolling in Yellow’s academies come from a variety of backgrounds. Some have experience operating heavy equipment in industries like construction, while others have never even touched a stick shift. Some students are in their early 20s, but many are older workers in search of a well-paying “encore career.”
“We have a wide range, from 21-year-olds on up. I think the oldest student I have had was retired military and in his 60s,” said Keefer, who joined Yellow as an instructor in 2021. “I’ve had one student from Kenya who moved here three or four years ago. I’ve had people from all around the world, basically.”
Bringing in new and more diverse candidates is the idea behind Yellow’s goal of training 1,000 drivers this year. Instead of just recruiting drivers from other trucking companies, Yellow is introducing a wider and broader audience to the trucking industry.
A recent class of students at Yellow’s Pico Rivera, Calif. Driving Academy.
Yellow offers two levels of training for its student drivers:
• Four weeks or 160 hours of classroom and behind-the-wheel training at one of the 22 Driving Academies in order to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and endorsements.
• Once new drivers have earned their CDLs, they begin linehaul or local driving at a Yellow terminal and receive an additional 160 hours of on-the-job instruction from a safety trainer.
The combined 320 hours of training ensure that students gain the practice and repetition they need to master the technical skills and mindset of being a professional truck driver. At the Driving Academy level, the class schedules may vary slightly from one school to the next, but the training has been developed from the driver’s point of view. All the instructors have years of experience as professional drivers – from regional linehaul to local combination drivers.
Each Academy has a “yard” – a large, paved area where students first get a feel for operating a rig. They learn maneuvers like backing in a straight line, parallel parking, offset backing and 90-degree backing into a dock. They learn how to shift and perform pre-trip safety inspections. Later in the training, they gain experience in street driving and shifting on the road. If all goes well, students are ready to take their CDL driving exams by the fourth week of training.
After receiving their CDLs and starting their driving careers at a Yellow terminal, new drivers continue to polish a range of skills that include tight maneuvering, building sets with different-sized trailers and interacting with customers.
A student attempts a backing maneuver, one of many skills covered at the Driving Academies.
Academy training isn’t easy, and not all students complete the course. The instructors’ purpose is to develop truck drivers who are safe, confident and calm behind the wheel. While the academies typically graduate 80% or more of their students, not everyone makes it though.
“This isn’t the career for everyone,” said Kettner, who has 19 years’ experience as a driver. “We’ve had a few students who weren’t picking up on the skills or were maybe a little fearful behind the wheel.”
Driving a tractor-trailer that weighs as much as 40 tons fully loaded is naturally intimidating. Academy instructors agree that building confidence is the most daunting challenge their students face.
“Most people who come here have never been inside a truck. They have no experience with a 10-speed or a semi,” Keefer said. “So, the most challenging thing is getting them to relax and build up their confidence that they can do this.”
Patience is another key trait all truck drivers must possess.
“Everything in driving a truck has to be very thoughtful and calculated because they are so large,” Kettner said. “Learning to be patient and to slow down and think about what they’re doing before they do it is one of the hardest things to learn.”
The instructors understand that each student learns differently and at a different pace. Having a ratio of only four or five students per instructor allows for a lot of one-on-one training and personal interaction. Scolari, a veteran over-the-road driver who has been at the Salt Lake City academy for over a year, knows the strengths and weaknesses of each of his students. He can mold the training around each of their unique personalities and needs.
“You just have to learn to work around a problem, find the best solution and continue to push them forward,” Scolari said. “The struggle is rough. You’re going to grind a few gears here and there, but you’re going to get it in gear and you’re going to be able to move it forward.”
The “wall of honor” at the Salt Lake City academy.
In addition to addressing an urgent economic need for more truck drivers, the Driving Academies also introduce people to a new way of life. For many students, becoming a truck driver for Yellow is a chance to earn more money in a stable career that includes excellent benefits and good work-life balance. Getting through a month of rigorous training and passing the CDL exam at a local DMV is an accomplishment in and of itself.
“We had one guy who was so excited throughout the process and when he got his license, he was in tears,” Kettner recalled. “He kept saying, ‘I’m gonna be a truck driver!’”
In his year as a CDL instructor, Scolari feels he has learned nearly as much from his students as they have from him. And nothing gives him greater pleasure than adding another framed photo of a recent Driving Academy graduate to his classroom wall of honor.
“The most satisfying part for me is knowing that I helped somebody change their life, that I was able to motivate someone to do something that seemed completely impossible – and make it possible.”
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