MISSOULA – Like a lot of kids growing up, Renee Kelly liked to play with toy trucks in the backyard dirt pile.
Unlike a lot of kids, her love for big rigs never went away.
Today, Kelly owns a small fleet of heavy machinery and operates her recently launched landscaping business called Rock on Groundworks.
She got her start in the University of Montana’s Missoula College heavy equipment operation and commercial driver’s license program, learning how to shift through 18 speeds and back up a cargo trailer with precision. The basic skills she learned there have been invaluable ever since, said Kelly, who graduated in May 2022.
“Driving a mixer truck with 10 yards of concrete is definitely a learning curve,” Kelly said. “Same with driving a semi with concrete blocks or picking up heavy equipment. You can’t just change lanes; you have to think ahead. I like the challenge.”
Kelly, a 13-year U.S. Army veteran who served two tours in the Middle East, represents the broad diversity of students now enrolling in the CDL program at Missoula College, said Larry Reinholz, director of the college’s heavy equipment operation program.
“We definitely have more male students, but we are seeing more and more female students,” Reinholz said. “For some students it’s a second career, for some it’s a third, but also for some it’s a first. We see a diversity in ages too – from 18- to 70-year-old students enrolled in the program.”
Much has been written the past few years about the nation’s ongoing shortage of commercial truck drivers, which was made worse by the pandemic. In 2021 alone, trucking companies faced a deficit of 80,000 drivers according to the trade organization American Trucking Associations. Estimates are the industry shortage could top 160,000 drivers by 2030.
While there are many reasons for the shortage, the need is very much real, said Reinholz, who’s worked in heavy equipment his whole life.
“I was driving an 18-wheeler when I was 8 years old, but that’s eastern Montana,” he said.
In the past 15 months, 55 students have completed the course, which requires completing federal paperwork and a physical and drug test before actual training starts. Most complete the course in 25 to 30 hours, learning to drive one of two semis – an 18-speed and a 10-speed.
Students just don’t learn to shift gears, they also learn what makes commercial rigs tick, said Andrew Tode, the program’s head instructor.
“We teach them the ins-and-outs of a trailer, how to add fluids and put on tire chains,” Tode said. “When you are on the road, you often have to be your own mechanic.”
The employment rate for students finishing the program is nearly 100%, Reinholz said.
Local employer, Derek Miller, a driver and maintenance manager for GW Petroleum, has hired three drivers from Missoula College and works closely with college staff to identify top drivers who he can take the next level of training for endorsements to haul hazmat cargo and fuel.
“It’s very tough to get drivers these days,” he said. “Without state-based schools like that at Missoula College, the country would come to a stop. No products, no fuel, no commerce.”
CDL graduate Danica Gorton enrolled at Missoula College following advice from her father, who operates a soil business in the Flathead Valley.
“I asked how I could help with the business, and he said he needed drivers with CDLs,” said Gorton, who earned a bachelors in psychology from UM.
Today, the mother of two drives for Pro Sweep Plus and hauls asphalt in her Kenworth dump truck she’s named Kenny.
“I grew up driving a stick shift, but this is a different beast,” said Gorton, who earned her CDL in April. “I love it, I absolutely love being in the truck.”
Having a truck driving mom though has worn off on her kids, she added.
“We’ll pass a big truck and I’ll point it out and tell them it’s just like the one I drive, and they are like, ‘Yeah, Mom, we know,’” she said with a chuckle.
Kelly went to work for Diversified Materials & Construction right after graduation and had valuable opportunities to learn “practical stuff” like handling a truck while driving up steep hills.
“I am grateful that they gave me a chance to prove myself,” she said.
Like the true gearhead that she is, Kelly hopes to one day replace her smaller dump truck with something bigger and beefier.
“I like working outside and driving heavy equipment,” she said. “There is a real sense of power when you are sitting up in that cab.”