1. News
  2. /
  3. Hillsborough

Hillsborough Community College works to fill truck driver shortage

The program, a partnership between HCC and SAGE trucking school, allows students to earn their commercial driver’s license.
Instructor John Dees teaches students how to set up their rig as part of the SAGE/HCC commercial driver's license (CDL) certification course. [DIVYA KUMAR | Divya Kumar]
Published Oct. 10

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.

Instructor John Dees watches as student Joseph McGuire, 24, connects the trailer to his truck. [DIVYA KUMAR | Divya Kumar]

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.

Student Nick Price practices the processing of uncoupling the trailer from a truck. [DIVYA KUMAR | Divya Kumar]

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.


  1. In this file photo, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister is announcing arrests in a sting operation that targeted unlicensed contractors. [Times (2018)]
    Monday morning, Sheriff Chad Chronister will announce the results.
  2. Hillsborough County deputies are seeking a man and woman suspected of using a stolen credit card. They are shown here in screenshots taken from surveillance video at a Walmart in Seffner, one of six stores where the credit card was used. Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office
    Surveillance video shows two people leaving a Walmart in Seffner with a shopping cart full of merchandise.
  3. Sally Carlson of Seminole talks to her newly adopted 5-year-old miniature poodle held by Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center volunteer Mary Claire Streator. Potential owners browsed some of the 300 puppies that were put up for adoption Sunday in the gymnasium at All People's Life Center in Tampa. The designer-breed dogs had been rescued from Trish's All Breeds Pet Grooming in Tampa, where they were found sick and malnourished. Prospective owners were chosen out of thousands who applied during a lottery-type system and were able pick out a dog. LUIS SANTANA   |   TIMES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The animals were found in deplorable conditions at a grooming business in September. Their new owners had 15 minutes to make a selection.
  4. For the latest news and information, go to TMCCARTY  |  times staff
    Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputies are investigating. No arrests have been made.
  5. The scene of the car crash off of north I-275 on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019 that killed Cliff J. Pierre Jacques. [Florida Highway Patrol] FHP
    The crash was alcohol related, troopers say.
  6. Lykes Gaslight Square Park in downtown Tampa, where a proposal to open a cafe has sparked debate on the role of parks in the city. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Two recent proposals to use public space downtown for private eateries have started a debate about the purpose of parks
  7. Jeremy Guerrero, 31, was arrested on charges of DUI manslaughter and driving with a license suspended or revoked involving death, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. He's accused of being impaired by methamphetamines when troopers said he caused a crash on Interstate 75 that killed a woman early Friday. Florida Highway Patrol
    The 31-year-old driver faces a charge of DUI manslaughter after causing the crash that killed a 57-year-old woman, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
  8. The $3 billion Water Street project is slated to be complete by 2026 or 2027. How affordable will it be? SHADD, DIRK  |  Tampa Bay Times
    A project executive ticked off many ways the $3 billion project will alter Tampa, but a Cafe con Tampa audience wanted details on what it will cost to live there
  9. WeWork is opening Tampa offices at 501 E Kennedy Blvd. despite company struggles, including $1.25 billion in losses over 2019. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    WeWork has 200 planned coworking space openings as leadership tries to manage $1.25 billion in losses.
  10. Titan Goodson points to visitors in the courtroom during his unsuccessful motion to dismiss the manslaughter charge against him Thursday. SCOTT KEELER  |  Scott Keeler
    Titan Goodson’s lawyer argued there was no proof he supplied the heroin that killed Katie Golden, 17. Trial is set for December.