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Commercial driver's license insufficiency hits western North Dakota

National and state logistical and freight chains face severe shortages in 2022; experts say

An employee for the City of Dickinson operates a truck.
Chief Street Mainentance Operator Darryl Wehner inside a City of Dickinson truck. Wehner has been with the city's Public Works Department for more than 36 years and is one of the few veterans of the department. Wehner received his commercial driver's license (CDL) from Dickinson State University decades ago.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press
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DICKINSON — The American Trucking Association release an annual report, and in 2022 they estimate that the truck driver shortage will surpass historic highs as the industry desperately needs more than 80,000 drivers to maintain the status quo. This figure alone highlights the high demand for drivers based as freight and logistical chains remain gridlocked across much of the country.

Over the past few months, the shortages of qualified and experienced truck drivers have created significant issues in North Dakota leading to the slowing of distribution of goods, which has greatly impacted supply chains for businesses. This issue hit home recently with the closure of two major milk distributors in North Dakota: Lakeview Dairy and Red River Dairy.

On Jan. 25, Gov. Doug Burgum announced an effort to remedy the problem by waiving portions of the U.S. Department of Transportation's regulations concerning how many hours drivers of commercial vehicles transporting milk can work.

The news comes as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration implemented new guidelines requiring that all entry level driver training across the country require students to have a minimum of 40 hours — practical, class and behind-the-wheel time. The change will go into effect on Feb. 7.

Street Operations Manager David Clem addressed the new requirements and how the city plans to maintain cohesive operations under the new laws.

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“... As a city… when you’re trying to hire employees that don’t have a CDL (commercial driver's license)... well, there’s a cost to that. And some of these training schools, they can be pretty costly,” Clem said.

The city entered into a one-year contract with J. J. Keller & Associates — based out of Wisconsin — which will allow Dickinson to become a certified private entity to train its employees while maintaining compliance with the new rules.

The city has sent four of its employees to become certified trainers who will return and begin the process of training new hires. The program will be accredited through the Federal Motor Carriers Act.

Once those new employees complete the proper training, they will be able to take the final test at the DMV to obtain their CDL — required to operate many of the larger vehicles owned by the city. The Public Works’ budget will bear the $15,000 cost needed to launch this effort and are expected, by the end of February, to have those trainers ready to go.

Though Clem said they’d prefer to hire people with a CDL out of the gate, that's not always the case. Having the ability to adapt and train new hires in-house will be beneficial moving forward, he added.

“... We figure this gives us a little opportunity to give back to our current employees and also bring new employees in and show the value of us, (saying), ‘Hey, we’re going to spend the time (and) the effort to train you.’ So hopefully the longevity is there,” he said. “A lot of people are out there chasing that money. So it makes it a little tough on entities like the city and little small businesses. So we’re trying to just get ahead of the curve.”

A large truck is shown.
A truck for the City of Dickinson is pictured inside the storage garage inside the Public Works facility.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press

In Public Works, the city has approximately 56 employees that operate various classes — A, B and C — of CDLs from tractor-trailers, straight trucks to tank trucks. These operators range from all the divisions of Public Works, including Buildings and Grounds, Cemetery, Forestry, Recycling, Solid Waste, Storm Water, Street, Waste Water and Water Distribution.

“Our operators just don’t operate the equipment. They do everything. They go from trucks to trailers, they haul equipment, we do all kinds of things. So you got to be robust… When you come to the city and in Public Works, you can be on a blade one day, you can be in a dump truck, you can be in a snow plow. And so it’s… (an) advantage if you have a CDL or we help you obtain a CDL,” Clem noted.

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To recruit city operators, it can be a challenge especially in the oil and gas market with competitive wages, Clem said, adding that he spent more than 28 years in the oil and gas industry.

“A lot of the younger generation, they're chasing that money and it's tough. They're looking at now, not the future. I think we've all been there. I'm 50, so I remember I chased the money back in the day too,” he said. “But coming to the city, you can make it a career. You can be here for 20 (to) 30 years.”

Two screens inside a large truck are pictured.
An inside view of a City of Dickinson truck shows two monitors, allowing city operators to keep track of their routes with camera views and a digital tracker. The tracker monitor is especially useful to snowplow trucks that alert operators which roads are completed, how fast the equipment is traveling and the amount of material that's being applied to the road.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press

The city has a 90-day probation period for new hires and that gives those employees the time to obtain their CDL if they haven’t already done so, Clem noted. With four upcoming trainers on site, the city will be able to document that training via the national database, which will “hold everybody to the same standard.”

“That really puts a kibosh on backyard training, so to speak. So now, it’s regulated — your classroom hours, you’re practical, your behind-the-wheel — it’s all regulated," he said.

Clem noted that the trucking industry has affected the city of Dickinson from week delays in shipments from street line paint.

A steering wheel inside a truck is pictured.
A view inside a City of Dickinson snowplow truck is shown.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press

“Trucking is what keeps North America alive and there's a lot of regulations. I'm not disagreeing with any of them. But at the end of the day, it makes it tough when you don't have the trucks on the road, bringing the material that you ordered… (It’s) just like rail cars. If you don't have rail getting your oil out and you don't want to put it into pipelines, what's oil going to do? It's going to sit,” Clem said. “So transportation is very big.”

Chief Street Maintenance Operator Darryl Wehner, who’s been with the City of Dickinson for 36 years, received his CDL through Dickinson State University and began his career at the city shortly thereafter.

“A lot of the stuff that we're going to have to teach in this doesn't apply to the city because we're not driving over the road… We're going to be teaching our guys more than we need to know for here, but it's a good thing… It also helps all of our drivers understand what other CDL drivers have,” Wehner said.

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Two large trucks are shown.
A garbage truck, right, and a dump truck are parked inside the City of Dickinson Public Works facility, where they are maintained in pristine condition when not in use by city oeprators.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press

DSU expands CDL training program with partnership

As part of its expanded Dual Mission, Dickinson State University offers a CDL course through the partnership with TrainND Northwest and Williston State College. This program was implemented in the fall of 2020, and has since expanded as new federal requirements have pushed the colleges to expand trainings to include high center of gravity and liquid transportation training for students, filling critical needs in southwest North Dakota, the state and the nation.

Chip Poland, chair of DSU’s Department of Agricultural and Technical Studies — which houses the CDL program, shared how the pandemic has disrupted North Dakota’s dairy industry.

“The federal government came out with some additional CDL training requirements that requires programs to have a longer training period… and that is limiting some current drivers that they don't meet the new federal regulations. And then we don’t have enough drivers,” Poland said. “It just so happened that one industry that ran into the perfect storm of these three things was the dairy industry and particularly, getting milk distributed out to various places. And I believe the thing that has brought this to life was schools that were losing contracts with processors because the processor is closing because we have CDL issues. So our job in the long term is to establish a training program that meets the federal regulations, and that we have done… In January, we just started with an additional week of training in Williston; so they’re here for three weeks and then they go up there for four or five days to add on that added federal requirement.

“So we're working to produce more eligible drivers that can also participate in interstate transport. The governor's order, though, allows us to access more drivers that might in the short term help us fill this immediate need, if you will. So we can train in groups of four. So our ability to meet a really quick need is limited by the fact it takes us a month to train for drivers in the system that we have in place. So the governor's order allows us to respond more quickly to fill that gap until we can sort of catch up to it. And hopefully we'll get out of this COVID deal. And hopefully we'll generate enough drivers that we can alleviate the shortage going forward.”

Dairy is a unique industry within the agricultural world, Poland said, explaining that milk is “an extremely perishable commodity” that needs to be processed either once a day or every third day, depending on each farmer’s milk production and bulk tank capacity.

“If somebody doesn’t come and offload the milk that I’ve produced, I have to put her down the drain because I’ve got more milk coming tomorrow and more the next day and more the next day,” Poland said. “... It’s not like fall (where) I got a combine running for the next month and I got to have semis hauling grain away. Worst case scenario, I could dump all that grain on the ground (and) finish the harvest. I don’t want to do that, but theoretically, I could. I can’t do that with milk; it’s got to stay cool, it can’t get contaminated with other things… Dairy is unique in the sense that somebody’s got to show up on a regular basis.”

The DSU course is limited to four students every other month, due to one instructor and one vehicle available at a time. Currently, the program operates six times a year. However, moving forward, Poland said they’re gearing up to host that course every month at 12 times a year.

“... Right now, we’re moving from what was feasible for us to do to where we can get in terms of reaching a potential and now, we just need to figure out how many students want to obtain a CDL,” he added.

The next CDL training at DSU begins Feb. 28. For those interested in this program, visit dickinsonstate.edu/CDL or contact Kenley Nebeker, regional director for technical programs and training at TrainND Northwest, via email at kenley.nebeker@willistonstate.edu or by calling 701-713-3780.

Large trucks are shown.
Various trucks are parked inside the garage portion of the City of Dickinson Public Works facility.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press

Jackie Jahfetson is a graduate of Northern Michigan University whose journalism path began in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a freelancer for The Daily Mining Gazette. Her previous roles include editor-in-chief at The North Wind and reporter at The Mining Journal in Marquette, Mich. Raised on a dairy farm, she immediately knew Dickinson would be her first destination west as she focuses on gaining aptitude for ranch life, crop farming and everything agriculture. She covers hard news stories centered on government, fires, crime and education. When not fulfilling deadlines and attending city commission meetings, she is a budding musician and singer.
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