DALTON, Ga. — A stone's throw from the front door of Big Rig Driving Academy, tractor-trailers rumble up and down Interstate 75, their drivers stopping at a truck stop on Carbondale Road for fuel, food or a simple rest.
John Smith, founder and classroom instructor at the new CDL (commercial driver license) driving school located just south of Dalton, is a longtime veteran of the trucking industry himself. His journey began when he took a job at Chattanooga-based U.S. Xpress reviewing and counting driving logs.
U.S. Xpress ranks No. 19 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.
Years later, Smith now knows all about big trucks — about driving them, inspecting them and filling them with drivers. Two decades in various roles in fleet safety and recruiting, he feels, has prepared him well to start a CDL training school and equip new commercial drivers with the information they need to not only get jobs, but also keep them.
Smith's school is unlike many other driver training programs. Prior to acceptance into the program, students sit down with Smith and talk not only about the program, but their interest in a career in trucking.
Smith said throughout his career at corporate trucking companies, he has seen many new drivers go through training and go out on the road, only to throw in the towel and quit before hitting the six-month mark.
"There's a better way to get people ready," Smith said, "and the industry needs that."
Currently, the trucking industry faces a major shortage of around 35,000 to 40,000 drivers, and the gap is projected to widen over the next six years, according to American Trucking Associations.
The industry has struggled to bring new, young workers into driving, even as veteran drivers leave. Today, the average age of American truck drivers is 49.
ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said greater competition for workers and CDL school costs are two factors leading to the shortage.
Plus, driver turnover at large fleets remains very high, with many large companies replacing up to 95 percent of their drivers every year.
Smith sees all these issues and believes commercial driving schools can do more on the front end to better vet recruits and better prepare the ones who choose a career in driving.
His vision for Big Rig Driving Academy means establishing a reputation as a leader in driver education.
"If the Ivy League had truck driving schools, we would probably be in it," he said. "We're the elite, I think, CDL school around here."
The first round of classes starts this month. To allow maximum one-on-one instruction and driving time, Big Rig Driving Academy will take two students in the weekday program (a four-week, Monday-Friday course) and in the weekend school (a 10-week, Saturday-Sunday program).
Tuition is $3,500. Smith pointed out most trucking companies reimburse drivers for their training.
Smith knows his school won't be for everyone. He knows, due to the school's high standards, some applicants will be turned away.
But at Big Rig Driving Academy, the goal isn't on graduating quantity, he said. It's about producing quality drivers for local companies.
As evidenced by the number of semis running through Dalton and by Smith's school daily, "there's really no reason to leave the area once you leave our school," he said.
Smith said he hopes to grow Big Rig Driving Academy and add locations across the Southeast.