COLUMBIA — State scholarships for training could go a long way toward stemming the growing shortage of commercial truck drivers that threatens to put the brakes on commerce in South Carolina, industry advocates said Tuesday.
The state already needs thousands of additional truckers, and the problem will only worsen as the industry's aging drivers retire over the next few years, advocates told a state House panel looking into ways to get more truckers on the road.
Tuition help is available for commercial drivers license courses offered on 14 campuses of the state's technical colleges.
But what's available isn't helping the people who need it, said Thomas Pierce, who runs the CDL program for Florence-Darlington Technical College, which also provides the five-week program at several other technical schools.
People receiving food benefits through the Department of Social Services can get half of the $4,750 cost paid. And people receiving unemployment aid can get a full scholarship, but only if their annual family income falls below $16,000 and they go through an arduous process that includes passing a test.
That unfairly shuts the door on a lot of people who are trying to get off assistance and support their families, Pierce said.
Truckers are in such demand that students are hired before they even end the 200 hours of training, exiting to a job that immediately pays $800 to $1,500 a week.
But many can't get in the door, he said.
Banks don't give loans for certification programs, advocates said.
"Tuition assistance is very, very important to this job market. These are people who can’t or don’t need to go to a four-year institution, but they don’t have that kind of cash on hand or access to pay upfront tuition," said Rick Todd, president of the South Carolina Trucking Association.
This year, legislators alloted technical colleges $11 million from lottery profits for "workforce scholarships" for people seeking professional certifications or degrees for in-demand jobs. That's up from $8 million last year and $5 million the year before.
Those scholarships are "for folks to go back and get certificates. Folks are trying to get ahead. That's what it's for," said House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson.
Previously, lottery scholarships were available only for two- or four-year degrees.
But the technical colleges themselves get to decide which in-demand programs qualify for the scholarships, according to the state's technical college system.
"We’re just not getting the love for (truck drivers)," Todd said.
The amounts each school received this year range between $1.6 million at Trident Technical College in North Charleston to $145,000 in Williamsburg Technical College in Kingstree.
It's unclear how much, if any, of the workforce scholarships are going toward CDL programs. Pierce said none of his students at six campuses ever received one.
Todd is encouraging legislators to survey the schools about their CDL programs.
The big trucking corporations can afford to offer tuition reimbursement programs or other tuition aid for people to come work for them. But the vast majority of companies in South Carolina operate very small fleets, Todd said.
While the state offers incentives for large corporations that require trucks to move their wares, "states don't recruit trucking companies," he said.
"If we're going to continue this economy and attract economic development and get what we want when we want it, we'll have to fill those drivers' seats."