Merced College would love to eventually have people banging down the door to get into its new truck driver training program.

It is a perfect time for the college to launch this noncredit (read: free) program. Pay for truck drivers has increased during the pandemic. There are well-paying jobs to be had.

“It’s such a great opportunity to serve the community and employers,” said Caroline Dawson, Merced College’s Acting Dean of Instruction for Business, Adult Education, Noncredit and Workforce Development.

“There’s such a great demand for drivers, like for local ag companies or Amazon long-haul drivers. There are so many opportunities, and this career is a lot more varied than people would expect.”

The Merced College program has been years in the making. It finally kicks off this month, with the first cohort of 12 students seeking a Class A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).

It starts with classroom instruction for eight hours per day on Saturdays and Sundays for four weeks at Merced College’s Business Resource Center. Then students will have behind-the-wheel training, also on weekends, at a paved and enclosed 5-acre spot on Thornton Avenue owned by Merced County. The last step is completing a 30-hour local internship.

It has become more urgent for the college to train truck drivers since, starting in February 2022, California will require anyone applying for a Class A CDL to show they’ve had formal training from a provider listed on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Training Provider Registry. The college is now on that registry, and the legislation will create a greater demand for instruction just as the Merced College program is beginning.

Merced College added a key member to the team in November, when it hired an experienced and passionate instructor in David Thomas.

“My brother is a professor in New York and another brother is a superintendent in Los Angeles for charter schools,” said Thomas, a truck driver for 32 years and an instructor for the past decade. “They’re thrilled to death this spot opened up for me. It’s right up my alley.”

Thomas began his driving career in 1982 as a civilian working for the Department of Defense civil service, transporting and delivering furniture to American military personnel throughout Europe. After five years overseas, Thomas returned stateside. He didn’t find a calling in retail, so he leaned back on his driving experience.

Thomas is as ready as any new Merced College employee can be. He should be — he’s been bird-dogging this position for nearly two years.

While attending Merced College himself as a career-change student, and earning AAs in Social & Behavioral Science and Addiction Studies in 2020, Thomas was also waiting for news that the driving school and the instructor position were open.

“I was always in such great spirits going to Merced College because I got to know such great people,” he said. “I just wanted to be a part of that team.”

For now, cohorts will be limited to 12 people. Students will need a valid driver’s license, a Department of Transportation Medical Exam Clearance, and a drug test to start their training.

There are three steps — gaining a permit after classroom instruction, then doing behind-the-wheel training, and then moving on to a 30-hour internship with a local company.

The mission of any truck driver training program is to prepare students for their Class A CDL test, but Thomas plans to give Merced College students more than just ways to pass those tests.

“There’s a lot more to truck driving than that,” he said. “My passion is to bring more to the table. There are other things drivers need to know.”

Sure, students will be proficient to eventually test on general knowledge, combination vehicles and air brakes to earn their permits. But Thomas will work to give them key learning in hauling tankers and double/triple trailers, and driving on hills and mountains, as well as hazardous materials training.

If students can add those endorsements to their licenses, and emulate Thomas’s dedication to safety and defensive driving, Merced College-trained truck drivers will be stronger job candidates.

“The thing I love is that Merced College puts an emphasis on the whole student,” Dawson said. “As we move forward, we’ll help students with the career development piece, too.”

Merced College’s truck driver training program will be a noncredit program to start. Dawson is working with community agencies to pay for gas, location rental, leasing the truck, and other practical expenses.

“And that will be our goal moving forward,” Dawson said. “We want to offer a free truck driving school. There’s such a need for this skill here; I think the community itself will help us figure out how to make it work.”

For more information or to sign up for the Merced College truck driving program, contact noncredit@mccd.edu or (209)381-6540.