Apprentice program offers new beginning

·4 min read

Nov. 29—Individuals released from the Tennessee Department of Correction can find an opportunity for a fresh start through the state's apprentice program.

Dozens of individuals have taken steps toward a career as commercial drivers through an innovative partnership between the state, Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Crossville and trucking company TLD Logistics and their truck driving school.

Jacky Tucker, a truck driving apprentice featured in a video by the state, is working toward returning to the trucking industry.

"I've got my CDL in my pocket, which might as well be an American Express Black Card," he said.

Tucker said he left Bledsoe County Correctional Complex not knowing what the future would hold. Roger Whittenburg, operations manager for the TLD Crossville terminal, was waiting for him.

He is one of 71 apprentices for the program that launched in October 2020. The program includes pre-apprenticeship training at TCAT Crossville, 140 hours of technical instruction and 2,000 hours of on-the-job-learning. Upon completion, the U.S. Department of Labor certifies the individuals as journey worker truck drivers.

To date, 12 individuals have completed the TLD apprenticeship program.

TLD Logistics serves as the apprenticeship sponsor, employer and training provider for participants in the registered apprenticeship program.

Five new apprentices signed their commitment to the program at an event held Monday at TCAT Crossville.

Tom Burdick, lead instructor with TLD, said, "I get to give the tools to some of the best people I've ever met in my life ... They deserve everything they get because they show me, coming from law enforcement on the other side, they've paid their debt. No one can judge them for what they did in the past. It's today moving forward."

The program is one of several in the state working with Tennessee Department of Corrections inmates to provide job training and a path to a new career after leaving prison. Gov. Bill Lee applauded the new apprentices on Monday and championed the program as a model for the state.

"We're trying to take what's happening here and magnify it across the state in multiple TCATs," he said. "We do have other programs, but this is a particularly effective one and one that we want to use as a model."

Lee said 95% of inmates will complete their sentences and be released from incarceration, often returning to their local communities. Job skills training is essential to help them succeed.

"We've seen that a good job provides dignity and hope for those that are returning from incarceration. This program does just that," Lee said.

Trucking can be a well- paying career path. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported tractor-trailer truck drivers earned a median salary of $47,130 in May 2020. In Tennessee, the average trucker earned $48,500. While the agency projects 6% growth in employment from 2020-'30, the BLS also notes the industry could have more than 230,000 job openings each year to replace drivers who leave the industry or retire.

The trucking industry has been strained for years, but a recent report from the American Trucking Associations estimated trucking companies needed more than 80,000 drivers in October.

That need for trained drivers has not only spurred interest in the apprenticeship program, but for an effort to revamp regulations within the trucking industry to provide more workers.

Lee, along with 14 other governors, signed an executive order Monday to ease state regulations on trucking and to call on the federal government to consider regulatory changes to help get more truck drivers on the road. Called Operation Open Road, the executive order asks the federal government to lower the commercial drivings license age from 21 to 18 years old, suspend policies that deter domestic manufacturing, end COVID-19 vaccine mandates on private businesses, and end federal spending the governors say is causing inflation.

TLD Logistics is also working to find more drivers and equipping new drivers with the skills they need. Burdick said the company recently broke ground on a state-of-the-art training facility that will allow new drivers more opportunity to train for challenges new drivers face in a safer environment.

"They're going to be better prepared and a better hire," Burdick said.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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