PLANT CITY — Mark Roosa listened intently as Bryan Balkwell spoke to him and his classmates about what life was like as a commercial truck driver.
Balkwell, 39, had held various management roles since his early 20s, but the stress began to take its toll on his health. His father had been a flatbed trucker for 40 years and didn’t want his son following his footsteps.
Still, Balkwell felt the road calling to him.
He had heard about SAGE trucking school in Plant City, where students can earn their national Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). The school is SAGE’s newest operation, and two years ago they partnered with Hillsborough Community College.
Courses are offered seven days a week, so after work each night, Balkwell clocked in his driving hours at the range off Lykes Road.
Trucking is not a glamorous life, he said, but it was the best thing he’s ever done.
“The freedom of being on the open roads is nice,” Balkwell said.
Roosa, 61, was a business owner for years, but after speaking with his wife, decided they were ready for a lifestyle change.
He worried at his age that he wouldn’t be able to find a new job. But trucking is a field of second chances, said Beverly Van Valkenburg, the Southeast Regional Director for SAGE who runs the program in Plant City. She said the partnership with HCC is looking to give anyone that chance.
They’ve taught people who are coming off military duty, single moms looking to earn a stable income quickly, people with graduate degrees yearning for a life change, or to double or triple their income.
“That’s really sort of the mission of a state college, to offer all types of different programs,” said HCC dean of academic affairs Joe Borrello.
Full-time programs start every two weeks and part-time programs start every five weeks. The program typically takes anywhere from three to 10 weeks to complete, depending on the student’s schedule.
Tuition costs about $5,150, and though students aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, a variety of scholarships and financing options are available through the school. Part of the curriculum takes place in the classroom. The rest of the time is spent on the trucking range and one-on-one with instructors who take them out to drive during the day, at night and in all weather conditions.
“We’re introducing them to every scenario we can think of except for mountain climbing here in Florida,” Van Valkenburg said. “But we do have the hurricanes.”
The Florida program is particularly popular because of its proximity to trucking routes like Interstate 4, Van Valkenburg said. In a typical year, about 200 students pass through the program and successfully obtain their CDL licenses.
Instructor John Dees, who spent 30 years as a truck driver, said it’s a field that’s open to anyone willing to put in the work.
This summer, the American Trucking Association issued a statement saying there was a shortage of more than 60,000 drivers, the highest shortage to date. That shortage is expected to increase to 100,000 drivers in five years.
“It’s pretty much a recession-proof industry,” Dees said. “No matter how bad I’ve ever seen the economy drop, even when the housing market crashed, jobs were never an issue in this industry.”
In recent years, the demographics of people entering the field has shifted, Van Valkenburg said. She had been a trucker for years, and she took her children on trips to see parts of the country they otherwise might not have visited. But it’s historically been a profession that has seen few women in its ranks.
About 20 percent of their students are female, she said, including a student who recently had the highest score on the CDL exam.
“If you saw her at the store, you wouldn’t think she was in this industry,” Dees said. “It’s good, because for years men have dominated it. I think a lot of women were afraid to come to this because it’s always been a male-dominated thing.”
Van Valkenburg said while some students come to the program fresh out of high school, the shifting demographics are largely a testament to the freedoms of the job.
“Because a lot of people are using this as a second career or a second chance, it’s something people are going toward,” she said.
Dees said the most rewarding thing after being on the road for so long is seeing the new lease on life it gives others.
“For some of them, it’s a life changer,” he said.