Local woman debunks trucking industry reputation with driving school
She's doing double duty these days, busting the proverbial glass ceiling and making waves in a male-dominated industry while also debunking old-fashioned stereotypes of that same industry she said needs more respect.
Mt. Juliet entrepreneur Susan Lockhart hopes those waves are in the "tidal" category and takes umbrage to the classic lyrics in Willie Nelson's and Waylon Jennings' 1978 cover of the original favorite "Don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys."
She makes note of the following lines,
"Don't let 'em pick guitars or drive them old trucks
Let 'em be doctors and lawyers and such..."
It's the truck driver reference that straightens this spunky woman's spine.
"I say, 'let 'em' be truck drivers," she said.
How the school works
It's a 150-hour, four-week class to learn to operate a Class A commercial truck. They learn to keep logbooks, fill out necessary paperwork and how to inspect their truck.
Forty of those hours are spent in the classroom where they learn defensive driving, map reading as well as the above. The other hours are spent in the "yard" learning how to back up a truck and hook it to a trailer. They also go out on the road with and without a trailer, among other things.
The class is $4,200, $200 of that is for the road test. However, many of the trucking companies will reimburse LTA graduates for this expense.
Just opened last week, Lockhart has a student in class. He was an offshore well driller and wanted to be home more often. Lockhart knows the seats will fill up fast once people hear the word about the relative ease to receive a CDL, guaranteed employment, newer higher standards in the industry, the changing perception and the opportunity to make good money.
"This is a skilled trade," she said. "College isn't for everyone. Many drivers segue into management and logistics with "so many ways to go."
Lockhart demystifies trucking's reputation
In fact, Lockhart's job now is to encourage both male and females to explore the industry she said has grown by leaps in bounds in technology, safety and big bucks career potential.
Lockhart is founder and CEO of Lockhart Trucking Academy, a newly-opened postsecondary school located on Clemmons Road in Mt. Juliet.
She recently moved to the property "which is perfect" with several buildings, one of which serves as their classroom. And this lady that when "cleaned up really good" can turn heads, is just as comfortable in work clothes helping inspect their 80,000-pound over-the-road trucks used for training at the academy. There are two for the program with another two on the way, she said.
Lockhart didn't come to own a truck driving school by happenstance. You could say she loves the big rigs and spent most of her career involved with them, in some way or another.
She served more than 26 years with the State of Tennessee, 13 in various administrative roles with Commercial Vehicle Enforcement at both the Public Service Commission and the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
"I've truly learned to respect these trucks," she said. "I wanted to focus on what I know best, which is commercial vehicle administration, by helping people receive the safest training possible and join an industry with a significant need for employees right here in our area."
In layman's terms - though she can spout technical terminology fluently - around 2014 the state began contracting with truck driving schools and the private sector jumped on the band-wagon. However, "this opened it up for some shoddy training," said Lockhart.
Prior to this, the wait period to train for a CLD (commercial driver's license) was excruciatingly long, up to three months.
It took months of reflection, introspection, do-diligence and gathering a team of highly-experienced experts to convince her she could bring something to this area not found in a time there's a crucial shortage of truck drivers in the United States.
"There is a national shortage of truck drivers and hundreds of trucking companies based in Tennessee, which I believe are an untapped resource for Tennesseans seeking employment, especially those residing in rural areas where jobs are scare or require a long personal commute," Lockhart noted with concern.
Too many jobs, not enough truck drivers
There is an estimated shortage of more than 350,000 truck drivers nationwide due to attrition. The veteran truck drivers don't want to go through the hassle of new and complicated regulations.
According to The Journal of Commerce, the shortage is expected to become worse as the economy and freight volumes grow, which ultimately results in consumers paying higher prices for goods.
"And many people have no idea how specialized a career in freight truck driving is," Lockhart said.
Stats for Tennessee's Department of Labor and Workforce Development reported general pay averaged between $21.43 and $23.98 - during the third quarter of 2015.
"That's an average of $44,564 to $49,898 a year starter salary, based on a 40-hour workweek," Lockhart said. "With two and more years of experience drivers can make $85,000 a year."
A truck at some point must move everything we purchase. And there certainly is a market for those seeking employment in the field. Lockhart said all her intense research reveals this year there's a shortage of 400,000 truck drivers and predictions that will grow to 600,000 in 2017.
Guaranteed a job?
Driven by this knowledge, as part of Lockhart's school, she's offered something inventive. Essentially, she's hired LeeAnn Gilbert, recruiting manager for the academy, to establish relationships with several trucking companies in Tennessee and surrounding states. These companies need student drivers with newly-awarded CDL's from the middle and southeast Tennessee areas.
"LeeAnn has worked closely with these companies to learn more about their hiring criteria so she can make that information readily available to our students not interested in a particular company prior to contacting the school," Lockhart explained.
This criterion is shared with LTA students before they begin classes to ensure students can figure out if a certain company's hours, pay and relocation rules fit into what they want in their career.
"We prefer students to research employers prior to coming to school to allow them time to find a reputable company where they are comfortable they could potentially work for, immediately upon completing our program and obtaining his/her commercial drivers license."
In a nutshell, students are almost guaranteed a job at the company they choose when they graduate, and trucking companies in turn can be reassured a LTA graduate will stay in their employment.
Additionally, Lockhart spent months perfecting the curriculum after she worked with industry leaders to develop what she considers the best curriculum in regard to safety. There are three instructors with prior instructor experience, two of whom are military veterans. She went through a mile-high pile of paperwork and processes to gain approval to open.
Life of a truck driver
Lockhart said you "definitely have to enjoy your own company."
"The younger generation is not used to interacting face to face anymore," she noted. "They most likely can manage solitude."
There's also split mileage options for those who want company. The trucks are kept moving 24/7 and many husband and wives, or those with significant others enjoy trucking together.
"You have to think for yourself, and not get nervous on the road," Lockhart advised. "There are weather conditions and you can't be distracted."
About 85 percent of current truck drivers are male, but Lockhart said women are becoming more interested.
"It's a good profession and a lot safer than it used to be. There are secured truck stops and sophisticated communications systems. It's completely different."
Trucking toward success
This entrepreneur knows she "risked everything" and has family "along for the ride, the truck ride that is!" Her employees went on hiatus the last three months to get the academy up and running.
"They are as passionate as me," she said.
Lockhart belongs to the Tennessee Trucking Association and the Mt. Juliet Breakfast Rotary. She hopes to open more schools in the future.
She admits she still gets treated with kid gloves on occasion, but said she feels empowered to "be working in a male-dominated profession and paving the way for others."
For more information, go to lockharttruckingacademy.com.
Writer Laurie Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.