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David Stephany is a tall, beefy recruiter for one of the largest long-haul trucking companies in the US. He is here today to give his pitch to eight new students at Lincoln Land Community College’s truck-driver training centre in Springfield, Illinois, complete with promises of $37,000 (€27,000) a year jobs straight out of trucking school and more than $50,000 (€40,000) after a few years of experience. He lists benefits they will receive if they sign on, such as health insurance, eye-sight and dental coverage, profit sharing, tuition reimbursement, flexible schedules and around $400,000 (€300,000) retirement plans.

Lou Anne Henderson, 49, is seated in the front row of the class and yells, “Right on!” when she hears about all that money. Before attending the school, she cleaned houses for $10 (€7) an hour with no benefits. As a truck driver, she says, she will make $15,000 (€11,000) more in her first year. That is a lot for someone in rural Illinois without a college degree.

Springfield is south of Chicago, separated by 200 miles of perfectly flat corn and soya bean fields. Here and elsewhere in the rural Midwest, factories have closed and their high-paying manufacturing jobs have gone with them. In the vacuum, trucking is one industry that still offers paying jobs with lucrative futures to those who otherwise have few options.

The US is crisscrossed by interstate highways, many of which meet in Chicago and freight transportation patterns reflect this. Trucks moved more than two-thirds of American freight in 2005, while trains carried only 15 per cent. Illinois had the third largest number of trucking industry employees, behind California and Texas. And the demand on trucks and drivers is only increasing.

Just to keep up, the industry needs an additional 54,000 truckers a year. Adding to this demand, there is a 90 per cent turnover rate at many companies, caused by drivers who can’t hack the long, gruelling days on the road far from home, or those who jump to better-paying gigs with competing companies. Add to that the impending retirement of 200,000 baby-boomer drivers and you have got the spectre of a driver shortage, according to the American Trucking Association. “Can you imagine functioning in that kind of environment? That’s the truckload carrier industry right now,” says Mike O’Connell, the executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association, which represents private driving schools. He says enrolment increased 10 to 15 per cent last year due to the demand for more truckers.

The situation is so slanted towards drivers that Lincoln Land truck-driving school director Bob Howard, looking a bit like the Michelin Man with his constant smile and round features, claims a 100 per cent job placement rate for his students upon graduation. “They graduate on Friday and they’re going to company orientation on Monday of next week,” he says. “The demand is through the roof and we’re not even denting the shortage.”

The school itself is modest. The 160 students who attend the programme each year spend the first week in the classroom, in one of two prefab trailers plopped down in the middle of cornfields. After they pass a written exam and receive a driver’s permit, they are outside on the football field-sized driving lot, steering the school’s three 16,000-kg, 20-metre-long tractor trailers around pylons, docking them against cement bumpers and learning to pilot the 2000 Sterling trucks backwards, in straight lines, without hitting anything. Each vehicle, complete with tractor and trailer, would cost about $130,000 (€96,000) new.

Howard shows off a room next to his office, covered floor to ceiling with Polaroid snapshots of the 1,549 students who have graduated since 1997. They have all been through the four-week daytime, or six-week night-time, programme – at least 160 hours in total – and paid about $3,200 (€2,400) for tuition, government health checks, drug screening and federal background checks. Howard says that 70 per cent of those former students are still in the industry. “It’s very unfortunate that when times are at their worst, it seems like truck-driving schools are at their best,” he says, noting that many of his students are laid-off factory workers or people without advanced degrees who can’t find similarly high-paying jobs elsewhere. “To find a job that pays $40,000 to $50,000 [around €30,000 to €37,000] in this area is tough, but a truck driver can start out at that.”

One such driver is Ryan Allen, 29, a student who looks the part. He sports a long goatee, a shaved head and tattoos that spill out from under his T-shirt and down his arms. Trucking is in his blood, he says. His father was a trucker for more than 30 years, his brother and brother-in-law are still driving and he also previously had a commercial driver’s licence that he let expire. He has lived in Springfield his whole life, worked as a carpenter for 10 years and as a hand on the family farm. But with a wife and a family, the low pay and lack of benefits made trucking seem like the only decent option.

“Unfortunately for Springfield, there’s not much of a market for anything. Even if you find a good job, it doesn’t pay anything.” he says. “Most days, you open the paper here, there’s at least three or four truck-driving jobs, then, in Sunday’s employment ads, you can have 25 or more.”

Allen had two job offers before he even set foot inside the school. This form of pre-hire is common at Lincoln Land. Many of the other students also had offers before they had even finished the first week of the programme. He has decided to take a job at Werner Enterprises based in Omaha, Nebraska, and will be heading to the company’s new driver orientation very soon. “Werner is a big enough company, they can offer a lot of good benefits, job security and job advancement.”

Most truck drivers in the industry today look like Allen: 95 per cent are male and almost 70 per cent are white, according to the ATA. But that is changing, says Ellen Voie, the chair of Women in Trucking and a manager of recruiting and retention at a large trucking company. She says 10 per cent of drivers at her company, Schneider National, are women. She maintains that this is due to building safe, clean, company-owned truck stops and using trucks with power steering, air-cushioned seats and automatic transmissions, making it easier for women to drive. “We have five-foot-two grandmas who have never driven a truck in their lives before successfully driving a big rig.”

Deanne Van Landeghem, a 38-year-old truck-driving student at Lincoln Land, represents this new face of trucking. She is a single mother, doing a minimum-wage data-entry job in Springfield, and receives health benefits from the state of Illinois for herself and her three children. She has also been pre-hired by a local trucking company that specialises in hauling coal and limestone in the area. But she’s already looking forward to the day, seven years from now, when her youngest daughter graduates from high school and she can join her truck-driving boyfriend on long hauls. Her dream of this teamwork would make a lucrative move, since team drivers, whether they are couples or just friends, can earn more than $100,000 (€74,000) together, because they can drive for longer than the federal maximum of 11 consecutive hours. “I’m so ready for trucking,” she says, adding that she could make almost as much in one day driving as she does in a week right now. “I’m really tired of making minimum wage and not being able to support my kids.”

Someone who is already on the job is Owen Reed, 27, who graduated from the programme in January 2006. He drives long-haul routes and trains new drivers, earning $70,000 (€52,000) a year. He is back at the school on this particular day for a visit and he has brought Pat Miller, another programme graduate who has been paired with him as his trainee. The two do a route that takes them from Mississippi to Wisconsin, 900 miles (1,450km) back and forth, six times a week, hauling furniture and staying out for five to six weeks at a time.

Reed leans against his 2007 Freightliner Classic XL. He has had it for a month and has already racked up 27,416 miles (44,122km). When asked how his wife feels about him being away so long, he smiles. “She loves it,” he says. “She wants me to stay out here.” In his cab there are photos of that wife, with long blonde hair, posing seductively in front of their aluminium-sided house, and photos of his boys, 11-year-old twins and a five-year-old. “You’ve got to have it in your heart to want to drive and I am just one of the guys who was meant to do this,” he says.

For Miller, who is 52 but looks 20 years younger, it is a different story. He had spent 27 years working in a foundry and then one day the plant moved overseas and he lost his job, so he turned to trucking. Miller would like to drive for a local company, allowing him to get home to his family (he has 13 grandchildren) every night.

It is a typical lament from the students at Lincoln Land. And so, eventually, many might leave the long-haul side of the business, adding to the high turnover in the industry and making way for newer drivers to get a foot in the door. “It’s a hard life, especially if you’re a family man,” he says. “I’ve got to get my experience in for local companies to hire me. Just like any other industry you’ve got to pay your dues.”

Henry Hudson
48, lives full-time in his truck

Drives a 2004 9200 Series International 1,400 miles (2,250km) a week, hauling insulated copper wires, battery cables and power cords. “I sold the house, got rid of the second wife and I’m on my own,” he says. “No one is spending my money. Trucking and families don’t mix.” He drives east of the Mississippi and also in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri. Before driving, he repaired power lines for an electric company and worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He eats at truck stops and in the truck. He has a portable DVD player, satellite radio and a 250-watt CB radio – extended power so he can talk to other truckers 20 miles (30km) away. He buys his clothing and supplies at Wal-Mart. He does not care about brands – “except Levi’s because they’re soft”. His cap features an eagle against a US flag.

Jack Scherer
57, lives in Wyoming, Illinois

Drives a 2005 9400 Series International, 2,400 miles (3,900km) a week. Has been driving for 18 years and is on his way to pick up packages from FedEx to deliver in Columbus, Ohio. Likes casual clothing and shops at Wal-Mart. “You can do everything you need to at a Wal-Mart,” he says, “and it’s the one place I can park my truck.” Recently bought a good pair of boots and Nikes at Sears. Likes 1970s rock, especially Journey. “You don’t have a regular day out here – any time is your 24-hour day.” Finds truck stops too expensive, so takes his wife’s leftovers in his cooler and makes sandwiches on the road. Especially likes bagels and cream cheese. Listens to commercial-free music, talk radio and coverage of NASCAR auto racing. Wants to quit trucking. “I’d be very happy to get home more,” he says.

Tejinder Singh Kalra
49, lives in Brampton, Ontario

An Indian citizen who migrated three years ago, he drives a 2000 Freightliner Century 3,000 miles (4,800km) a week, hauling products for Procter & Gamble. He has been driving for two-and-a-half years. “I was a veterinarian and worked at Nestlé India in their milk procurement department,” he says. He cooks on a propane stove in the truck. He likes Subway sandwiches and pepperoni pizza from Flying J truck stops. He often drives to Iowa City, Iowa and Greensboro, North Carolina. He listens to Punjabi music and Indian drum music. He wants a TV and a satellite radio in the truck. He drinks coffee and tea to stay awake. He shops at Wal-Mart, Tommy Hilfiger and Sears, and he likes Levi’s jeans. His shirt and sweater vest are from India.

Kyle Powdrill
45, from Garrison, Texas

Hauls auto parts and household goods in a 2007 Kenworth T600. Drives up to 2,900 miles (4,670km) a week. Has been a trucker for 26 years, preaching for 14 years and an ordained Methodist Episcopal minister for eight. Ministers to other truckers on the road. Buys clothes at a western apparel shop in Texas. Likes Justin and Tony Lama cowboy boots, Ariat work boots, Stetson hats and Wrangler jeans. Wears a denim shirt with his company’s logo, Border to Border, and a Towncraft jacket from JC Penney. Cap is Texas Longhorns (University of Texas). Listens to gospel music. “I love eating at Chili’s,” he says, referring to the US Tex-Mex restaurant chain. “Oh Lord, and I like eating at Libby’s in Texas. I carry one thing in my truck that keeps me focused and that’s the Bible. I read it day and night.”

Jimmy Tate
50, from Linneus, Missouri

Drives a 2006 Kenworth T600, usually with his wife – they’ve been team-driving for nine years and cover 7,300 miles (11,750km) a week together. Has been driving for 29 years. Hauls freight for Hallmark Cards and, before that, lids for spray-cleaner bottles. Shops at Wal-Mart for groceries and heats up food in a microwave or his portable grill. Has a generator on the truck that powers a microwave, TV, portable grill and fridge for 10 hours on six litres of diesel. Buys clothes at Wal-Mart or, for shirts, Goodwill thrift shops. Wears steel-toe boots because “you never know when something is going to fall on your feet”. Wears a cap that says “Feel the Wind”. Doesn’t listen to music in the truck, only the radio for weather or accident information. “If you need something to keep awake, you shouldn’t be driving,” he says.

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