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Partnership fuels driving program

Teens learn skills toward commercial driving license

Senior Isaac Hill sat in the auto shop building at Cloquet High School Friday morning, parking an 18-wheeler over and over again, a different scenario popping up on the video screen in front of him each time, then being graded after each simulation. Hill can feel the change in steering pressure as he practices each maneuver.

Most of the time he gets 100 percent, when 80 percent is required to pass. On the parallel parking exercise, he got only 96 points out of 100. That's because he turned too hard and hit the trailer.

He doesn't mind losing points. He's there to learn, after all.

"The simulator teaches you to have spatial awareness without any of the real-world consequences," observed Hill. "If I hit a trailer here, I lose a couple of points ... [If I] hit someone's car in real life, it's a couple thousand dollars."

Hill is one of 16 Cloquet students working toward a commercial driver's license, or CDL, in the high school's newest Career and Tech Ed class offering. Fifteen young men and one young woman are in their second semester of the course that will give them their entry level driver's training certificate, Step 1 of getting them in the driver's seat of vehicles requiring a CDL, from dump trucks to semis. The program, which administrators believe is the only one of its kind in Minnesota, is taught by shop teacher Bret Gunderson and CHS assistant principal Tim Prosen, who both hold commercial driver licenses.

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the number of job openings in commercial trucking is projected to average about 241,000 per year for the next decade. Demand for drivers is why local industry is partnering with Cloquet to get more young people into the driver's seat.

Cloquet-based Upper Lakes Foods kindled the spark.

"They were at a transportation conference in Florida, and came back with the idea and got a hold of us," said Prosen, who earned money during college as a truck driver.

Tyler Lackas, ULF director of operations, used the connections he had at the high school to get the wheels rolling. "My wife is a counselor at the high school. So I already knew Tim [Prosen] and some other people there ... and I asked if they'd be interested," Lackas said.

He connected Cloquet with his superiors at ULF, and the project was born. Planning meetings started in 2022, resulting in this year's truck driving class.

The direct benefit for ULF is far in the future, if at all. Under federal law, "If you're between 18 and 21, you can't leave the state that you're licensed in," Lackas said. So for right now, ULF is just trying to get them started.

"When they turn 21, If they happen to still be interested, we'd love to bring them back," he said.

Upper Lakes Foods pays the portion of Bret Gunderson's salary that is devoted to the CDL course, and also pays for the curriculum, at $149 per student. That's about $10,000 in total, according to Prosen. ULF also provides trucks for much of the hands-on instruction.

Do the students get charged anything for the class?

"No," said Prosen, adding that students would have to spend $4,000-$6,000 to complete a similar program on their own. He said the school district uses the same curriculum commercial companies use, created by the J.J. Keller company.

Simulating a big rig

Excitement was high last month as the new truck driving simulator came online.

The simulator doesn't look exactly like the interior of a semi. There are big TV screens for the windshield, and smaller ones for the mirrors. There is a steering wheel, pedals and a shift lever. There's no coffee cup holder and no radio.

Whether for a truck or an airliner, simulators are valuable for at least two reasons. First, basic skills can be practiced without the expense of operating the real thing. Second, emergencies and malfunctions can be experienced without the danger of introducing them on the road in a real truck.

Gunderson talked about the advantages of simulating blowouts.

"It's extremely beneficial, because if you have a steer tire that blows out, the first reaction is to slam on the brakes, but that's the most dangerous thing you can do because that'll send you in a jackknife," he said. "Actually, you want to accelerate slightly when you have a front steer tire [blow]."

What happens if a student makes a mistake on the simulator?

It will either take points off, or if it's a major infraction, it will end the video and tell the student what they did wrong.

At the time of the interview, Hill was backing up his rig, one of many skills which students must master. None of them have actually driven a semi in real life yet, although they have gotten pretty good at the pre- and post-driving inspections after practice with the ULF trucks.

Until they can get behind the wheel, students must practice on the simulator.

For instance, for their driving test, they have to do three backing maneuvers, the more difficult one being the 90-degree turn.

"If they learn the skill well here, it might only take them two, three hours on the range," said Gunderson. Without the simulator, it might take six hours or more.

Hill said he got a job at a heavy equipment company after he signed up for the CDL class.

"I was going to get my CDL anyway, so I might as well save $6,000," he said.

A good start

Truck training is not only simulated with TV screens. Gunderson pointed to a side-by-side RV that looks more like a golf cart than a big rig training device. It is scheduled to be fitted with a trailer so students can do even more work on their backing skills.

There are of course no guarantees, but it is clear this course of instruction gets students as close as possible to a job when they graduate. They still have to take the behind-the-wheel test in West Duluth, and they are on their own for that, including lining up a rig in which to take the exam.

Sometimes, prospective employers can fill that need. Some of the students in the class already work in the family business or, like Hill, already have jobs for companies that use heavy vehicles and can use the qualification to drive bigger equipment.

The class is open to seniors only, because drivers must be 18 years old to take the actual driving test, Prosen said.

Pine Knot News editor Jana Peterson contributed to this story.