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HCC’s first class of truck drivers looks down the road

Eight graduates of Haywood Community College’s truck driving program  were awarded diplomas on Aug. 16. Cory Vaillancourt photo Eight graduates of Haywood Community College’s truck driving program were awarded diplomas on Aug. 16. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Six months ago, the eight men gathered on the auditorium stage at Haywood Community College’s Regional High Technology Center were working at Pactiv Evergreen’s century-old paper mill in Canton, looking forward to long and financially rewarding careers there. 


On Aug. 16, after 386 hours of training, they became the first class of CDL drivers to graduate from HCC’s truck driving program.

“We had been planning to bring truck driver training to Haywood County and our region for about the past year, but when the mill closure was announced, we really worked to try to fast-track this program for the summer, knowing that the closure would be happening in early summer,” said Shelley White , president of HCC. “We wanted to give this opportunity as we knew it was a great certification that folks could add to their skill set.”

Back on March 10 — just a few days after Pactiv Evergreen announced it would shutter its facility, cutting nearly a thousand good-paying union jobs — local leaders held a press conference  in the very same room, focused less on lamentation and more on how to address the needs of soon-to-be unemployed workers.

White and HCC quickly became the nexus of that rapid response effort; she holds significant experience in workforce development and had been part of a rapid response team in Buncombe County years earlier, saying that she’d witnessed the sadness and uncertainty of job loss eventually give way to hope and opportunity.

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The graduation of the new truck drivers marks a significant step towards that goal.

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Haywood Community College wasted no time in creating a training program for aspiring truck drivers after the Pactiv Evergreen paper mill announced back in March that it would close. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Working in partnership with Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, HCC provided the space and the students, while CCCTI provided the trucks and the instructors. The two schools share the expenses and the revenues from the program.

HCC’s Dean of Workforce Continuing Education Doug Burchfield said the cost of the program is $1,999, plus a few other expenses.

White said HCC was able to use its own funds to start the nine-week program, and that students took advantage of scholarships from the State Employees Credit Union as well as from the Haywood Community College Foundation’s Haywood Strong  program created specifically for mill employees.

According to an assessment  published on March 7 by Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based transportation solutions firm CRST’s chief economist, there’s currently a 64,000-driver shortage in the American trucking industry, which is forecast to grow to 82,000 next year.

The driver shortage comes with an ever-increasing amount of freight ferried by truckers across American highways each year. All told, more than a million new drivers will be needed over the next decade to keep up with demand.

The average salary for truck drivers can vary greatly due to experience and other factors, but career website says the average salary in North Carolina is more than $1,500 a week.

That’s nearly $80,000 a year, and not far off from the mill’s average salary of $85,000.

White and graduates were joined by Machelle Baker Sanders , secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Commerce, who said her agency had worked in close coordination with HCC, local officials, the NCWorks employment system, the Southwestern Workforce Development Board and Gov. Roy Cooper to bolster regional response to the mill shutdown.

“It’s times like the one that we experienced when I think North Carolina really shows up at its best because we come together as one, we work hard, we look out for each other and we pretty much have each other’s back,” Sanders said. “Today is really about hope. It’s about the future. It’s about workforce development and the importance of it. It’s also about providing a lifeline, if you will, to many families.”

Sanders also expressed gratitude to the U.S. Department of Labor, which in June announced the first $2.5 million installment  of a $7.5 million grant to support employment and training services in 11 Western North Carolina counties affected by the shutdown.

Kimberly Staley, USDOL Region 3 administrator, echoed Sanders’ comments about the teamwork that has thus far helped to ameliorate the economic devastation that could have come as a result of Pactiv Evergreen’s actions.

“What I see today is a true testament of the impact and the value of partnership,” Staley said. “Our secretary of commerce just noted, what you see is federal, state and local partnership here really supporting our students and our graduates.”

White said HCC has already begun scheduling new CDL programs for March and October of next year.

“Responding in times of economic crisis is part of the community college’s mission, alongside growth opportunities. We’re also here to respond in the community when critical issues occur, like what happened with the mill closure,” White said. “We’re just glad to be part of the future, part of the solution and helping these folks get back to work and have excellent job opportunities in the future.”

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