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From the classroom to a trucking career on the open road in one month

Peter Medlin
CDL trainer Joe Wisnow & director of short-term training and continuing education, Melissa Gallagher

Joe Wisnow climbs into the drivers’ seat and hits the ignition. He’s spent countless days on the road in a truck like this -- an “office with a view” as he calls it -- in his decades-long driving career.

But he’s not looking out at the open road now. He’s on a training course in the back parking lot of Kishwaukee Community College.

“Just making a right turn, I have to watch really close," he said. "The biggest thing with students that come in to drive a tractor trailer is you forget you’ve got a trailer behind you. That's a very common mistake. So right turns and backing up are the two hardest things to learn.”

This is where Wisnow’s students practice. He’s the Commercial Drivers’ License lead trainer at the Kish Truck Driver Training Program.

And even though it’s still a semi, the truck he’s behind the wheel of is a far cry from what he drove during his time as a long-haul driver. For one, it doesn’t have a cassette tape deck like the one he started with in the ‘90s. No, Kishwaukee College just invested in a brand-new 2023 Volvo semi-truck for the training program. But the real tech upgrades can be found just in front of the driver’s seat.

“Everything's integrated under the dash here now,” he said. “So, your oil temp, your coolant, your pressure on your system, how much weight you put in your trailer is right here. So, it's really neat.”

Kish is now offering new CDL prep night classes for folks who work during the day, alongside its intense daytime courses. The night course takes eight weeks to complete compared to the high-speed four-week day classes.

It takes 40 hours of classroom instruction before students can even take the permit test to step into the truck. Wisnow says the class is a major commitment and it’s why they only take four students per course.

“It's literally like three, sometimes four days where they have to digest 92 pages of material," said Wisnow. "That's a lot."

It IS a lot to take in. Before they get behind the wheel, his students learn about the vehicle -- a 116-point pre-drive inspection is part of the CDL exam. That’s along with how to actually drive a tractor trailer and delve into the truck business and lifestyle.

Instructors like Wisnow don’t deny it can be a grueling business. Which is why when industry pros say a driver shortage is at an all-time high, other experts contend that there’s no shortage at all. They say the real issue is burnout. About 300,000 drivers leave every year. Some companies have sky-high turnover rates.

“We take three different scenarios of different companies,” he said. “And we show an hourly pay, a mileage pay, and a percentage pay, because that's how the companies typically pay out here. And then we break it down, we don't just take the actual paycheck, we say ‘Hey, this has got a 401k. Over here, they don't pay insurance. Here, they pay insurance,’ and break it down.”

Are you an owner-operator, an independent contractor or a lease contractor? It’s complicated. Depending on where you drive and for how many hours, driver pay, and benefits can vary widely. Amid shortage reports and supply-chain crunches, Wal-Mart made news earlier this year by raising starting driver pay to upwards of $100,000-per-year.

Wisnow says they have students who graduate right into good pay like that, either driving coast-to-coast, regionally at a company like UPS or locally with a farm.

But the significant lifestyle changes that come with the career are why a class nominally about getting students ready to pass the CDL class becomes much more.

“It takes a huge -- for lack of a better word -- U-turn," said Wisnow. "I mean, when I started off, I had a good social network and all that and you go out on the road, and you disappear and your phone eventually stops ringing."

He says that, fortunately, technology like you can find in their new truck and on your smartphone has made it much easier, especially for folks with a family back home. There’s a lot of FaceTime calls.

Despite the challenges, Wisnow wants to underline that trucking -- whether long-haul, local or regional -- can be a fulfilling career.

“It's a valuable job. I mean, you can raise a family on [it],” he said. “It's a very lucrative job to have, you could find success in the trucking industry. And I think that's something that’s got lost in the shuffle.”

And in just a few weeks, his Kishwaukee students will find out for themselves, as they go from a classroom to a career on the open road.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.