Zack Yagnich’s ambition steered him toward a steering wheel.
He tried college, didn’t like it. Worked retail, then security. Neither engaged him.
Young, single and eager for a vocation that could be satisfying and lucrative, Yagnich explored options toward the end of summer. He was especially intrigued by one: the demand – the massive demand – for men and women with a commercial driver’s license.
Gas and oil companies, and support industries, perpetually need them. The Pennsylvania Departmnent of Transportation and Waste Management were seeking them. There is always a call for school bus drivers, it seems.
Besides, he doesn’t mind being alone in a rig and likes the prospect of stability a transportation job would likely afford him these days. So he was driven to drive.
“This actually just popped up and I decided I wanted to get it,” said Yagnich, 21, of Charleroi. “I was sitting around and decided that if I’m sitting, I may as well be moving.”
Yagnich enrolled at Western Area Career and Technology Center, started classes Oct. 7, and exactly seven weeks later had a Class A commercial license. He was proud and pleased Monday – “commencement” day – and is applying for jobs and is confident of landing one.
Acquiring a CDL isn’t as easy as ABC. It is an expensive, intensive, demanding endeavor. Operating a rig or bus is light-years more challenging than driving a car or sport utility vehicle, and downright dangerous in certain circumstances.
But a CDL is a more suitable – and marketable – vehicle for finding work than many college degrees, and for making big bucks. The demand for drivers is greater than it is in many professions in a still-suppressed economy – provided, of course, that you can pass the drug tests and background checks that dissuade so many from even applying.
“Finding drivers with CDLs can be a challenge, especially in rural areas,” Erika Deyarmin, spokeswoman for Waste Management, said in an email. (Waste Management operates Washington Hauling in Chartiers Township.) “It’s important that our new hires are a good fit from a safety, cultural and work-ethic standpoint.”
A CDL may not be a yellow-brick road, but it can lead to a road of prosperity.
Special training required
There are three CDL classifications in Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Transportation’s Department of Motor Vehicles website (www.dmv.state.pa.us/pdotforms/fact_sheets/fs-cdl.pdf):
• Class A: A combination vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating of at least 26,001 pounds, provided the GVWR of the towed vehicle tops 10,000 pounds.
• Class B: A single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 pounds or more, or such a vehicle towing one that is not more than 10,000 pounds.
• Class C: A single vehicle with a GVWR under 26,001 pounds if it is carrying hazardous materials requiring a placard; is designed for 16-plus passengers, including the driver; or, is a school bus.
Applicants who want to drive a specific type of vehicle also must acquire a commercial endorsement. Yagnich plans to pursue endorsement H, to transport hazardous materials.
Would-be drivers first must apply for a CDL learner’s permit. They have to be 18 or older but do not have to possess a conventional non-commercial license.
The permitting process usually is not time-consuming. “I came here with no experience shifting gears, but I got it in a week (after starting classes),” Yagnich said.
Once a permit is secured, a candidate must take a written test – 70 questions for Class A, 50 for B and C – then a skills test. One must have the permit for at least 15 days before taking a road test.
The process usually begins with candidates taking CDL classes, which are offered at few sites in the region. Western Area, in Chartiers Township, and Mon Valley Career and Technical Center in Speers are the only two in Washington County. There are none in Greene County.
Waste Management’s Deyarmin said Washington Hauling has a driver in training program in lieu of classes.
“In tandem with a seasoned WM driver, the driver-in-training is trained to safely operate a commercial motor vehicle to pick up refuse/recycling on a residential routes,” she wrote. “The driver-in-training will continue in this role until there is an open position for which they qualify and are assigned as a full driver.”
Douglas Education Center in Monessen, across the Monongahela River from Washington County, provides classes as does Steel Center Area Vocational Technical School, near Jefferson Hills in Allegheny County.
Classes had been conducted at ShaleNET, a job-placement program funded through the U.S. Department of Labor at Westmoreland County Community College in Youngwood. But Byron Kohut, director of that center, said a funding reduction put a temporary end to that last summer.
CDL classes are costly, averaging about $6,000, according to Kohut. Grants may help candidates, but they’re not readily available. For job-seekers, this is in addition to paying for the required drug testing and criminal background checks.
“Teachers and fuel costs are the biggest expenses,” said Dennis McCarthy, director of career and technical education at Western Area, which features a truck driving range on the hill above the school. “If you don’t have a range, some places have to rent space for their trucks.”
Kohut, whose ShaleNET program includes preparing students for Marcellus Shale-related work, said, “We need companies to think about contributing to CDL training.”
Western Area charges $4,994 for the 160-hour program. McCathy said funding is available.
Day after day, almost minute after minute, tri-axle and flatbed trucks contracted by the oil and gas industry move down High Street in Waynesburg, headed to areas in western Greene County where the drilling boom is in full swing.
Behind the wheel of each of those heavy-duty trucks is a driver holding a valued commodity – a CDL. Obtaining one enables an individual to lock into a job that ostensibly offers some security, at least in the foreseeable future.
But Barbara Cole, administrator of Greene County CareerLink, said getting a CDL is not the same as a 16-year-old getting a license to drive the family car.
“Far from it,” she said.
There are up to eight weeks of classes, the cost and a PennDOT physical that all applicants must take.
“It is my understanding,” Cole said, “that if you fail (testing positive for drugs), you will not be permitted to take the physical again.”
She said she has been told that certain companies will tell a prospective employee if there is chance he or she may not pass the physical, “don’t take it.”
Surprisingly, with all the truck activity, there is no training facility in Greene County.
What made it hard for Greene to establish a training site is that before the drilling boom, it had no trucking to speak of. “There are no big depots where trucks came in and out,” she said.
While the drilling industry has created considerable job opportunities for many, it has, conversely, created hardships for other business concerns.
Cole said school bus contractors, in particular, often struggle to find qualified drivers.
“School bus drivers still have to take the same CDL test as someone driving a truck for Halliburton,” she said. “Some school bus companies will train the drivers, but you have to remember, a school bus driver makes $75 a day, while the truck drivers make $25 an hour.”
Cole also noted that PennDOT is having a dreadful time finding CDL drivers to drive snow plow trucks this winter.
Valerie Peterson, community relations coordinator for PennDOT, said trucking firms and logging companies have cut into the number of qualified drivers who employers can hire.
“We are still advertising for drivers for the winter,” she said. “But we have our painting crews who we can pull in if necessary.
“It’s not so bad in Fayette and Westmoreland counties. The worst, though, is in Washington and Greene counties.” Shortage is growing
Dawn Fuchs’ personal alphabet likely begins with CDL. Her father, Donald, started Weavertown Environmental Group in 1981, and she is now the chief executive officer and president.
The company provides environmental services – many trucking-related – year-round and aound the clock. “We’re a company that never sleeps. You call and someone answers the phone 24 hours a day,” Fuchs said of her Carnegie-based firm, which has a strong Washington County presence.
She said there certainly is a need for drivers, one that has increased with the rising prominence of shale play.
“There was a shortage pre-Marcellus,” she said. “Now jobs are being created. It was a tight situation before. Now it is extra, extra tight.”
In an effort to be sufficiently staffed, Weavertown offers a bonus to any existing driver who refers a CDL owner to the company and is hired.
Weavertown is no longer affiliated with AAA, but still tows small-, medium- and heavy-duty equipment. Among other duties, it also responds to tractor-trailers and trucks that have crashed and, she said, will provide another tractor to a driver in need.
“We like to hire people who have a CDL in hand,” Fuchs said. “But on occasion, we hire some who don’t have a CDL and we help them through the process. We hire a number of military veterans. They have great experience.
“We also realize our type of equipment can be different than they were trained on, so we train them (in that area).”
One candidate type that Weavertown won’t hire? “We tell them they should not apply if they are not clean (of drugs).”
Harder than it looks
Henry Clemens used to drive for a living, and now teaches those who aspire to do the same. Since April 1, 1991 — that date is indelibly carved into his brain — has been a CDL instructor at Western Area.
“I do Class A, but I started with school buses,” said Clemens, a Washington resident.
He said commercial drivers aren’t the only element of the licensing experience that is beleaguered by a shortage.
“You also can’t go out and find instructors to teach CDL,” he said. “Instructors have to adapt to each student for them to just get the CDL.
“You are teaching people who have been driving automatic vehicles to drive a standard shift. They are making large turns. That puts a lot of pressure on an individual (who teaches).”
Clemens said safety and job expertise are paramount. CDL candidates must learn “they have other duties besides driving,” and that the process shows them “how good of a defensive driver you really are.”
Apparently, Zack Yagnich absorbed all of that and more. Clemens was his instructor and the pupil got his CDL.
“If it wasn’t for him,” Yagnich said. “I’d have never gotten through.”
CDL classes start the first Monday of every month at Western Area, taught by Clemens, Dave Caddies of Claysville and Bill Powers of Canonsburg. Each supervises four students, of various ages, at a time.
WACTC’s graduation rate is phenomonal. Clemens said it’s 99 percent, with 92 to 95 percent landing jobs.
“Only two in four years didn’t make it, and they quit,” he said.
There are four trucks on the driving range built in 2009. Two are owned by the school, and two by Southpointe Energy Research Group, which provides training there. When Western Area students display appropriate dexterity with a rig, they literally hit the road – Route 519 at the school entrance and other nearby rural arteries.
The range is where Zack Yagnich learned to handle a rig, and a lot more about driving.
“When I came here, my mindset was, ‘If I can drive a car, I can do this.’ I got set pretty damn straight. This is harder than it looks.”
That was driven home the first time Yagnich drove a rig off school grounds onto 519.
“That was probably the most nervous I’ve been in a long time,” he said. “And the guys with me were just as nervous. I had one instructor in the front seat with me and two or three in the back.”
He, and they, survived. Now he hopes to thrive behind the wheel.
Yagnich paid for his classes with money that had been set aside when he was very young. He has no regrets about being $5,000 short.
“It’s the best investment I think I’ve ever made.”