Couple teaming up in career change to drive big rigs following recent layoff

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 607 views 

Ernest and Cheree Shunn of Lowell embark on career changes after losing jobs at APEX Tool in Springdale in January. The married couple worked for the toolmaker for more than 30 years and now are training to become CDL truck drivers at the Mid-America Truck Driving School at Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale.

Ernest and Cheree Shunn of Lowell have been best friends and partners in nearly everything they have done for the past 32 years. The couple worked at APEX Tools in Springdale for more than three decades before their jobs were transferred to South Carolina in January.

A month later they enrolled in truck driving school in hopes of launching a new career that they plan to do together as team drivers.

Doug Carter, president of Mid-America Trucking School at the Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale, said their timing could not be better for a career change because carriers of all sizes are facing a shortage of 70,000 drivers in 2016. The driver shortage is the top challenge in the U.S. trucking industry, with the American Trucking Associations’ saying the driver shortage has worsened since the 20,000 empty seats reported in 2005.

“True team drivers can earn $150,000 on average and they are in demand given the regulatory restrictions on driver hours that went into effect at the end of the year,” Carter said. “A team working together can run between 800 and 1,000 miles a day.”

With the lucrative pay potential a truck driving career the couple said they can nearly double their household income in a year’s time. They plan to pay off the mortgage early and save what they can to buy their own rig at some point. They could see a possibility of running as a team most of the time, with Ernest running on his own on occasion if that sort of arrangement is allowed.

Ernest Shunn said he’s always enjoyed tinkering with diesel engines and has often thought of owning his own rig which would allow him to work at his own speed for the next 15 years or so. Cheree said she can’t imagine not seeing her husband at work and she’s too young to retire so earning a CDL license and joining the open road in the shotgun seat of a big rig looked pretty good to her. Although she was a little skittish behind the wheel when asked to backup the 52-foot trailer in routine drills during her first week of instruction. The couple will complete their training the first week of March and then study their options before signing with a company.

“This is a career change and we don’t want to rush into a contract that isn’t right for us, so we will take our time to chose the company and program that best works for us,” Ernest Shunn said.

They hope to begin by running expedited deliveries like those for Federal Express, UPS and even perishable goods as opposed to long haul dry freight. Once they build up miles and experience they would take coast-to-coast runs or north to south. When asked how their children reacted to the career change, Cheree said their two grandsons had the biggest opposition until they found out they might get a ride-along.

Carter added that there won’t be any shortage of opportunities along with sign-on bonuses and other benefits given the vulnerable positions carriers are facing with driver shortages. He said most carriers do provide ride-along privileges for adolescent children.

The Shunns were able to take advantage of the state’s dislocated worker training program that includes federal funding for retraining into new careers. Ernest said Cheree opted to leave her job the same day he did because they wanted to begin and finish the training at the same time in step with one another.

“It’s exciting for us and also a little scary because we have worked in manufacturing jobs for over 30 years. We love to take road trips together and always have because there is so much to see when you drive,” Cheree said.

Carter said about 20% of the students in driving classes are women and he would like to see more which is why Mid-America Truck Driving School partnered with NTI and the University of Arkansas Global Campus in recruitment and awareness initiative earlier this year. Roughly 6% of the truck driver workforce is made up of women, and females comprise 50% or more of the workforce, a statistic Carter said needs to be changed.

“Women, veterans and Hispanics hold the potential to solve the truck driver shortage if they can recruited to the industry,” he said.

Sandy Nash of Gentry also is enrolled in truck driving school this session after 8 years of prodding from her husband a longtime driver for McKee Foods, maker of Little Debbie brand snacks.

Nash lost her job at DaySpring in 2008 and would ride along with her husband as a “spare loader” under an independent contractor agreement with McKee Foods.

“McKee only utilizes team drivers for the longer routes because they do their unloading. They did away with the spare loader contracts and that is partially why I am here getting the CDL training,” she said.

Because she was displaced from her job less than 10 years ago, she too qualified for tuition paid by the state’s dislocated worker training program with funding from the Department of Labor.

“I am doing it because I like to ride along and I might as well earn the higher pay of a driver,” she said.