Special to Transport Topics
Arkansas’ Mobile Job Simulator Promotes Industry
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How can the trucking industry inspire the next generation of truck drivers and diesel technicians?
One answer is to put students behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer, or, better yet, put them behind the wheel of a truck driving simulator inside a tractor-trailer, and let them have some fun. That’s the rationale behind Be Pro, Be Proud, a workforce development initiative, led by the Associated Industries of Arkansas, that’s spreading to other states, including South Carolina and Georgia.
In Arkansas, students can climb aboard a 53-foot trailer with two pop-out sides that can expand to cover 1,000 square feet. Inside are about a dozen simulator stations where students can be exposed to career opportunities through industry-quality simulators and virtual and augmented reality. The mobile exhibit’s insured value is $1.2 million.
Be Pro, Be Proud, a workforce development initiative in Arkansas, helps raise awareness of employment opportunities in trucking. (Be Pro, Be Proud)
Two of those stations are a high-end truck driving simulator and a diesel technician exhibit where students virtually reassemble the components of a Class 8 heavy air and disc brake assembly. Students are timed and scored for accuracy.
A variety of other workforce career fields are also represented. Union Pacific provided a locomotive driving simulator. Students can operate a backhoe or excavator, or practice hands-on skills in robotics, welding, plumbing and electrical line work.
The two versions of the exhibit, including an earlier, 40-foot model, had made 550 tour stops and served 98,700 students by the beginning of this semester. It has since been seeing 100-200 students a day, a 50% decline from last year because of COVID-19 restrictions, but demand is strong.
The truck will spend a week in a location targeting eighth-grade students and older. Eighteen thousand have registered to get more information about educational and employment opportunities.
“The interest just remains so strong. The outcomes continue to be really positive,” said Andrew Parker, executive director of the Be Pro, Be Proud program and director of governmental affairs at the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.
Arkansas officials have been sharing their experiences at national meetings of American Trucking Associations and manufacturing groups.
South Carolina now has a 53-foot version that launched Sept. 3 that is similar to Arkansas’ latest trailer. Cherokee County, Ga., launched a 40-foot trailer in late July that is similar to Arkansas’ first version. Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and New Mexico have made specific solicitations.
Parker said Arkansas’ organizers have been assisting states seeking to start its program, describing it as an “off-the-shelf effort.” The more states that use the platform, the stronger its message becomes, he said, adding that Arkansas officials don’t mind sharing with others since they’re not competing for the same talent pool.
One key addition to the program is Tallo, a digital recruitment portal similar to LinkedIn but targeting young people. They create an online profile that allows Be Pro, Be Proud to send them monthly messages. Meanwhile, the program’s partners can craft interactive campaigns to reach them. Those students’ progression through their education and into the work world can be tracked to determine how well the program is performing.
Promoting Career Opportunities
The idea behind Be Pro, Be Proud came about because employers couldn’t find enough people to fill skilled jobs including truck drivers and diesel technicians as the baby boomer retirement wave was beginning.
Community colleges struggled to get students interested in career fields in transportation, distribution, construction, manufacturing and other areas, while many students had been steered toward a four-year college path.
Be Pro, Be Proud hopes to attract students to a well-paid trucking career without amassing student debt. (Be Pro, Be Proud)
“We realized that we had all of these wonderful career opportunities in these technical skilled areas, and nobody was selling them,” said Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce President Randy Zook. “If a kid went into them, it was sort of accidental.”
The catalyst was the 2015 legislative session, when the Chamber tried to present a workforce-heavy legislative package and found lawmakers weren’t interested. Members of the Chamber decided that in order to change attitudes, they needed to increase demand in legislators’ districts by creating a pipeline of talent.
A local marketing firm, Stone Ward, suggested a traveling exhibit that would share information about these professions. The initial cost was daunting, but Parker started working his contacts. He approached Ken Calhoun, who later served as chairman of American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council. Calhoun was vice president of customer relations for Truck Centers of Arkansas, a dealership later acquired by Doggett Freightliner. His dealership practically donated a Freightliner M2 sport chassis tractor at a two-year lease for $1. Be Pro, Be Proud would be responsible for fuel, tires and diesel exhaust fluid, while the dealership would take care of the maintenance and repairs.
The initial result was a 40-foot gooseneck trailer featuring a half-dozen professions. It stayed booked continually throughout the school year. It wasn’t air-conditioned, and its use depended on favorable weather, but it proved the concept. It since has been retired.
The latest version, launched in 2019, has four times as much space. Daimler Trucks North America made a large cash contribution that Doggett Freightliner matched, leaving Be Pro, Be Proud with a small amount to pay for a new Cascadia. DTNA also sponsors the diesel technician simulator along with TMC.
An Expanding Program
Calhoun’s current company, Altec, where he’s the fleet optimization manager, along with a large electrical contractor, Pike, provided a bucket truck simulator. Using a virtual reality headset, the student operates the bucket to capture coins as it “ascends,” and then insulates the lines and performs a repair.
The Be Pro, Be Proud trailer includes a diesel technician exhibit where students virtually reassemble Class 8 truck equipment. (Be Pro, Be Proud)
Calhoun said project organizers learned from a welding simulator on the first version that if one student earned a high score, a competition would ensue, thus providing a “gamer” element.
The Arkansas Trucking Association, an early supporter of Be Pro, Be Proud, has donated more than $100,000 to the project, said President Shannon Newton. Trucking companies are providing direct support as well. Newton said an industry struggling to find drivers and technicians needs to engage students so they see themselves in those jobs.
At the same time, the industry must “change the hearts and minds” of teachers, counselors and parents.
The Cherokee County, Ga., version started when the Cherokee Office of Economic Development’s Misti Martin attended a “think-in” in Arkansas hosted by a strategic advisory firm, where she and others were briefed on Be Pro, Be Proud by Stone Ward. Her office’s Cherokee by Choice, a public-private partnership, has helped fund the offering.
The setup includes a hand-eye coordination skills challenge that serves as an icebreaker, a commercial driving simulator, welding simulator, two virtual reality stations for health care, a plumbing station, and one for robotics and automation.
Scheduled to launch in early 2020, the workshop was delayed until July because of the pandemic. It started touring area schools in August and was already booking other counties in north Georgia. It also has been on technical college campuses and been toured by home-school groups. As of this fall, about 1,300 people had gone through the unit, and more than 30% of the students who have toured it had joined the movement. The plan is to share it through north Georgia and the Atlanta region and then to scale it statewide under the leadership of a statewide entity. Martin thinks the idea will “spread like wildfire.”
“It’s really the legs that are on it that’s so attractive because it does have those connections to the employers, to the training, to the professions,” she said. “And it’s just better than anything else that I’ve researched, and it’s better than anything we’ve done here, and it’s better than anything else I’ve been able to see looking at it across the country or even globally.”
South Carolina’s version, like Arkansas’, is a 53-foot trailer with two pop-outs. It came about after South Carolina Trucking Association President Rick Todd approached Southeastern Freight Lines about the project. Lee Long, director of fleet services and a former TMC chairman, was asked to lead the effort.
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The truck features a truck driving simulator and diesel technician station. It also includes stations with a computer numerical control machine, bucket truck, plumbing, electrical, welding, excavator and forklift operations. The trailer was designed with blocking and bracing, so additional stations could be added. Much of the costs have been covered by donations and sponsorships.
The South Carolina Trucking Association spearheaded the driving simulator and technician station, where students can repair front-end disc brakes. The program is working with South Carolina-based Diesel Laptops to develop a fault code-based simulator. The tractor came about through an 18-month lease agreement with Navistar that will be followed by another agreement with Volvo.
The program was inaugurated in the first week of September and is booked through 2021. In addition to schools, it’s also traveling to technical schools and the Department of Corrections. It has since been deeded over to the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce.
Like Arkansas’, the program is designed to capture students’ imaginations as well as their information so the program can follow up and maintain their interest. The trailer features a touch-screen television with jobs and descriptions of average pay, educational offerings near the students’ homes, and the approximate cost of those programs. Through Tallo and the Department of Education, the students are tracked through their educations and until they are employed.
No matter how effective Be Pro, Be Proud is, the trucking industry still faces a regulatory environment that other industries on the trailer don’t face: Young people don’t have full access to the industry as interstate drivers until they are 21 and can cross state lines. The Arkansas Trucking Association’s Newton said she hopes a different environment exists for today’s ninth-graders by the time they reach 18.
“If we introduce young people to the opportunity, we assure them that it’s a good fit for them as a career, their parents sign on, their educators sign on, and they graduate high school, and they’re ready to enter the workforce, we don’t really have a place to put them today,” she said.
Despite that challenge, the program continues to attract students to trucking and other career fields where well-paying jobs are available now without huge student debt. It hasn’t been easy or cheap, but it’s making a difference, and now it’s spreading to other states. As Zook noted, it’s a big solution for a big problem.
“It’s a labor-intensive, capital-intensive way to change the conversation, but we’re getting traction and we’re making progress,” he said.
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