With Trade Skills In Demand, Enrollment In Two-Year Colleges Grows

Dec 21, 2015

Anton Gabrielson, a student at Missoula College hopes to trade in his hiking boots for a stint as a long-haul truck driver.

"Coming from a background as a wilderness ranger I’m attracted to the nomadic aspect of being a long-haul truck driver. I think I’m well-suited for that lifestyle, at least for a few years.”

Gabrielson is behind the wheel  of a 70-foot-long tractor trailer rig. He’s taking the empty truck on a practice drive around Missoula as part of a five week course to prepare for Montana’s Class A Commercial Driver’s License exam. That’s one of the first steps to becoming a long haul trucker.

Instructor, Mark Dodge is riding shotgun on this recent bitterly cold, crystal clear morning. He describes Gabrielson as “an exceptional student.”

"Anton has already filled out applications with three companies and there is no doubt that he can pick and choose from any of those companies.”

"Anybody who has a CDL and who has a good record – by that I mean a motor vehicle record and no real criminal record – those folks are in big demand.”

According to Montana Commissioner of Labor and Industry Pam Bucy, it’s not just the trucking industry that’s hurting for qualified workers.

"Yeah, it’s across the board. You’ve been hearing about skill gaps and skill shortages in high skill occupations; engineering, computer programming, high tech manufacturing – all those things which are growing industries here in Montana, but even in the traditional trades, the average age of an electrician in Montana is 54-years-old.”

Far more baby boomers are expected to retire from the workforce in the next decade than there will be 16 to 24-year-olds to replace them. So the state is now focusing on refining and developing education and training programs to stem the coming labor shortage.

One is called RevUp, a partnership between the state and 13 of Montana’s two year colleges. It’s supported by a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. Executive Director Matt Springer says the idea is to make it easier for students to come and go as their personal and professional needs change.

"In doing that, we’ve seen some pretty dramatic shifts. Enrollment in those programs has gone up 33 percent over the last three years. Student retention is up 13 percent. Completion – there’s an opportunity for that to be up to three-and-a-half times better than it was in our traditional programs. We’re also seeing great placement rates out of those programs. By and large, probably about 80 percent of students are getting placed in jobs after they complete those programs.”

A RevUp grant totaling roughly $100,000 is paying for the driver training program, as well as programs like like nursing, welding and machining.

Springer says about 30 percent of Montana’s graduating high school students continue into higher education. Eighty percent of them will choose a four-year university. Springer says many of them don’t have a specific end goal in mind.

"And while exploration is great, universities are expensive places to find yourself. Probably what would make more sense in the state is that we’re able to catch a much larger percentage of that population; maybe 80 percent of high schoolers continuing on into higher-ed. But (for) the majority of those folks, it probably makes more sense for them to go into 2-year colleges or to be gaining short term certificates and credentials.”

Montana Labor Secretary Pam Bucy:

"I think we have done such a disservice in this country to parents for at least two decades. We’ve told parents if you don’t get your kids into a four year college you’re somehow not a great parent. I do think that is changing dramatically."

Bucy says Montana’s four-year universities don’t seem quite as engaged as the two-year colleges when it comes to career development programs.

"And partly because I think it’s harder for them to respond as quickly as it is for two year colleges. Two year colleges are living right in that community. They’re talking to those employers. But (Commissioner of Higher Education) Christian and Deputy Commissioner (of Academic & Student Affairs) John Ceck have been very engaged in these discussions and are trying to figure out ways to make all of the colleges and our two flagship universities more responsive to private sector needs.”

Missoula College student Anton Gabrielson (seated) with his CDL instructor Mark Dodge.

Missoula College student and aspiring long-haul trucker Anton Gabrielson already has a Resource Conservation degree from the University of Montana. He worked four years as a seasonal wilderness ranger for the National Park Service. During that time he became exposed to helicopter work. Now he wants to be a pilot and thinks that working as a trucker would be an excellent transitional career move. His instructor, Mark Dodge, agrees and adds the money’s good too.

"If you work hard, and work for a good company that pays you well – and it pays to shop around – if you stay busy and work with your dispatcher, you can make $50,000 quite easily the first year.

That compares to about $30,000 to $35,000 a year as a wilderness ranger, and those are often seasonal positions that only last half a year.

Since Gabrielson took his final test-drive around Missoula, he’s passed the state CDL test with flying colors and is now training with Watkins Shepard trucking company.

Mark Dodge predicts his student will have a very successful career in the industry.

“Anton’s pretty darn good, I have to tell you!”