ST. PETERSBURG — Ever feel the call of the open road? Do you have the desire and drive to tackle wide stretches of highway in a big rig truck?
At the Pinellas Technical Education Center (pTEC) in St. Pete, people of all backgrounds can learn how to operate these powerful trucks in the Commercial Vehicle Driving program.
“We have students from all walks of life who are either bored in retirement or want to make a career change, or it’s just something they’ve always wanted to do — drive a truck,” said Laura Kingsland, one of three instructors of the course.
A St. Pete native, Kingsland has been teaching at pTEC for 20 years and is no stranger to the highways herself, for she has 17 years of road driving experience.
“Each student has to obtain 1,000 miles of hands-on driving, on a variety of roads and conditions in the state of Florida,” Kingsland explained. “We do about a 200 mile radius for them to get those miles, so they do a lot of road driving.”
The 320-hour course, which is offered exclusively on the St. Pete campus of pTEC, takes roughly nine weeks to complete. Before students take on actual road driving they spend about 80 hours between the classroom and range driving time, during which they learn such essentials as doing pre-trip inspections along with shifting, handling and backing up a truck, all in a confined area.
Once they get out on the road, the program takes measures to provide hands-on training with realistic conditions.
“Some of our trailers are fully loaded to simulate weight so they’re not driving an empty vehicle out there on the road all the time,” Kingsland said.
Students are also given the responsibility of transporting actual cargo so they can acquire “live experience” for when they become professional drivers, Kingsland said.
“Right now we are contracted with the Florida Humanities Council sponsored by the Smithsonian, and we are transporting art exhibits to small towns in Florida,” she stated. “We’ll pick up the exhibit and deliver it to the museum in one town and it’ll spend six weeks there, then we go pick it up and well take it to the next town.”
Students generally must be 21 to enter the program, but the center has made exceptions.
“The only problem with someone under 21 is that they cannot leave the state of Florida,” Kingsland said. “They have to run only in the state and few companies do that as far as tractor trailer.”
But she added pTEC also trains students for Commercial Class B Driving, which involves smaller delivery trucks, dump trucks, garbage trucks, etc.
Once students complete the course they have the opportunity to be hired by recruiters who come directly to the campus.
“We have a variety of companies that will hire out of the school,” Kingsland remarked. “Last month we had a two-day event where there were 11 recruiters coming in to hire students, which is a good thing for Florida.”
She explained that it can be difficult to get hired out of Florida in the trucking industry because it is a state where “freight comes in but nothing goes out,” but pTEC is doing what it can to bring together program graduates and companies seeking drivers. This includes its first transportation industry job fair, scheduled for Nov. 8 at the St. Pete pTEC driving facility. So far the Center has five companies who have committed, including tractor-trailer companies and organizations like the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) bus line.
“Even though we don’t train on the buses,” Kingsland said, “those organizations will train on the buses and put you to work there. The Tampa Bay Times will be out here representing their company as well. It’s open to the public and to drivers who are ready to change careers. We’re really looking forward to it!”
Kingsland’s enthusiasm for the course is apparent as she is committed to not only helping students become professionals but also improving how some may perceive the truck driving business.
“Sometimes our industry doesn’t have the best image out there,” she said, “and we would certainly like our students to become professionals in our industry and not just a ‘steering wheel holder,’ as they say.”
And for some folks, this course can provide the turnaround they have been seeking for some time.
“Sometimes we’ll get students in here who might have a low self-esteem or who haven’t really accomplished much so far in life,” Kingsland said. “And you really see them blossom when they start to get this and it comes around for them. I think that’s probably the most rewarding thing for us here.”
The next Commercial Vehicle Driving class starts every six weeks, so if you’re interested in this career path, please visit myptec.org or call 727-893-2500. Financial aid is available.