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In financial strain, OTC ends trucking program

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Eight years in and 360 commercially licensed truck drivers later, Ozark Technical Community College is hitting the brakes on its Transportation Training Institute.

After a financial review of the program, school officials say the current class will be its last.

OTC spokesman Mark Miller said the decision is based on four factors: low student demand, increased competition, an end to grant funding and the loss of venue for driving courses.

“We’re very confident that we had a really good program that turned out highly qualified drivers. It just was no longer economically viable for the college to keep going,” Miller said, citing a $343,356 program budget for 2014-15. “It’s a costly program to operate.”

Miller said OTC spent $2,000 a month to fuel four trucks, and another $2,100 a month to maintain them. Students paid $3,500 to take the five-week class, up from an original cost of $2,800 in 2007.

OTC’s program currently is behind by $47,000 this year, according to school officials.

Keeping pace
OTC officials point to decreased student enrollment as a decisive factor.

At its peak, the class averaged six to eight students enrolled, but when grant funding dried up, that number fell to four or five, with some dropping the course within the first week.

“It’s an affordability issue,” OTC Chancellor Hal Higdon said.

“Because it’s not a credit program, you can’t use federal financial aid, so they have to pay for it out of their pocket.”

Grants were a major source of funding for OTC’s program, the largest of which was a one-time Training for Tomorrow grant of $205,625 received in March 2010 from the Missouri Department of Economic Development.

“That was a grant that really came about during the early days of the recession,” Higdon said. “As far as I know, we have not found a similar grant.”

OTC also received funding in May 2008 from a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration grant worth $247,087, of which 80 percent was federal money, with the remainder funded by the college. Community Foundation of the Ozarks awarded OTC a $25,000 grant in August 2010, and another $50,000 dollars was raised for that grant in matching donations.

At Crowder College in Neosho, where commercial driver’s license training is an active part of curriculum, transport training Director Darrin Pfeifly said keeping pace with the costs of its own program prompted a 9 percent tuition increase in January to $3,450 per student in order to better fund a $740,000 budget.

“There was a little backlash to that, but we hadn’t raised our tuition in seven years,” Pfeifly said.

Student competition
Higdon said OTC noticed students moving to other companies’ programs but losing the CDL training grounds in the parking lot of what was formerly Price Cutter Park – dubbed by school officials as “The Duck Pond” – was a major blow. The site in Ozark is becoming the home of an independent minor league baseball league.

“I was here when we started (the program) and we almost never found a place to train. I wasn’t going to go through trying to find another place,” Higdon said. “I think the combination of the large numbers of people being trained by Prime and then also losing the training facility, put together, that made the decision for me.”

Steelman Transportation Inc. is one of several Springfield-area companies that supported OTC’s CDL program.

Co-owner Jim Towery said a deterrent to the program for his company was that insurance standards required new hires have a minimum of two years of driving experience. He could not hire students straight from OTC.

“One of the biggest problems I think we ran into through the life of the school was students finding the funding to go to school,” said Towery, whose company donated equipment to the program.

He said trucking companies with their own training programs have an advantage in attracting students.

“Those people are already placed as soon as they graduate. They know they’re going to work right there at that company,” Towery said.

Crowder’s Pfeifly said competition for students is increasing, and schools and private companies in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma are generally after the same pool.

“Everybody is short of drivers, but Springfield is so competitive,” he said. “I look at it as if a new school opens and they take two-tenths of a student away that’s one less body in my class. Every open spot hurts the bottom line.”

Around the bend
Higdon said OTC will offer the program’s tractors and trailers back to the their donors, including Steelman, Transland Inc., The Larson Group Inc., O’Reilly Automotive Inc. and RBX Inc. Towery said he advised the school to use Steelman’s truck in OTC’s diesel tech program.

Higdon said although the school has no plan to revisit the program in the future, officials would be receptive to input from those in the trucking and transportation community.

“The last time we did this in ’07 was at the behest of the industry,” he said. “If they need it and they’ll pay for it, we’ll always be glad to do it.”

Towery said the reason his company got involved with OTC remains an issue.

“There’s a huge demand for truck drivers right now,” he said.

A December study by the American Transportation Research Institute estimates the industry’s shortage between 30,000 and 35,000 drivers. Projections balloon to over 200,000 by 2022, compounded by the gap between older drivers retiring and young drivers entering the workforce.

“The average age of an over-the-road truck driver is about 55 years old, and those truck drivers are retiring and dying,” Towery said, noting although truck drivers can travel within the state at age 18, federal law prevents them from crossing state lines until they are 21. “As kids get out of high school, they don’t see truck driving as a primary career, so we lose contact with that workforce for several years before they are old enough or mature enough to be a truck driver.”

He said most insurance companies set a minimum driving age of 23-25.

“Although we say we’re an unregulated industry, the drivers are highly regulated,” Towery said.

“Part of the allure of being a truck driver was the freedom of the open road, and that freedom is getting put back in a box as far as regulations on drivers.”[[In-content Ad]]

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