GRCC to offer commercial vehicle training for veterans


COURTESY \ City of Grand Rapids

Lucas Swartzendruber, Staff Reporter

Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) plans to support military veterans and their spouses or children by training them to drive commercial trucks. The program seeks to fill public works jobs that require a commercial driver’s license (CDL). It was supported by a $79,567 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“What we’re going through in all the skills trade areas (is) we didn’t prepare people for these roles,” GRCC Workforce Training Executive Director Julie Parks said.

Parks said GRCC began working with local municipalities on public works nearly a year ago.  She mentioned the issue is over half of public works staff will retire in the next five years. However, she said not many people know about public works.

“Public works is a mishmash of things,” Kentwood Director of Public Works John Gorney said. “So in most communities, the public works departments do a little bit of everything.” 

Gorney said public works personnel undergo cross-training, so they handle street maintenance and other tasks without being limited to one job or skill set. Such versatility extends to public works staff plowing snow, Gorney said.

A few years ago, about 10 people across Michigan started the Public Works Academy to inform people about public works, Gorney said. These individuals serve on a planning committee and membership ranges from municipal public works directors to engineering firms.

Public Works Academy partners work with GRCC on the training program. Parks said municipalities and road commissions advise the curriculum, such as skills required in public works. Furthermore, they supply trucks and instructors for classes. 

The program is geared toward veterans, since not all are guaranteed jobs upon their return home, Gorney said. Military skills are sometimes not transferable to civilian jobs, but Gorney said he likes that veterans bring their military discipline into other careers. For example, they often understand the need to arrive to work on time.

Parks said CDL training, as required by state law, involves 60 hours in classrooms and 48 hours on driving ranges. Forty hours of practice driving occur on roads. The last two hours provide preparation for state licensing tests. 

Gorney said there are two parts to a CDL test in Michigan. A written test serves as one component, yet driving a truck means knowing it inside and out. For example, commercial drivers conduct a pre-trip checklist. This serves to assess whether a truck is safe to drive.

GRCC’s program will offer classes during weekends and evenings, Parks said. For students with daytime jobs, they can attend training after work. Parks acknowledged that people still need to pay for food and other bills.

“The amount of stress on a student is amazing nowadays,” Parks said. “We work a lot with adult students who have families and jobs and go to school.”

Veterans are no exception when facing stresses after service. The CDL program helps veterans by informing them about mental health services, as Parks mentioned that mental health pertains to adapting to change. Even veterans, she said, will be asked to change their skill set for civilian positions.

Parks mentioned other ways the CDL program can help veterans. For instance, a career coach navigator will assist adult learners as a fellow veteran. This individual can relate to veterans’ circumstances following their return into civilian life in West Michigan. 

Another way involves having a community through local organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Parks said. She emphasized students will work with cohorts who support them. After all, they have similar experiences of service and civilian life.

Parks said GRCC hopes to have the first group of students ready for classes in December. Information sessions and registration will begin in November.

Gorney said the need for public works personnel extends beyond local municipalities. The demand exists statewide and nationally. Subsequently, he described his long-term hope for the program.

“We’re hoping that we can expand the program so it touches every part of our country,” Gorney said.