Where the rubber meets the road

Hibbing Community College looks to accelerate transportation programming

  HIBBING – The need for more well-trained transportation workers is on the dashboard at Hibbing Community College.

  Already a leader in transportation-related technical programming, the college is studying how it can improve its existing programs to address a shortage of qualified, well-trained transportation workers within the region.

  The shortage includes over-the-road truckers, heavy, light duty and industrial truck drivers, bus drivers, auto mechanics, diesel technicians and a truckload of other transportation-related occupations.

  “The biggest issue is there's not enough good, qualified drivers out there,” said Jeff Hill, Wayne Transports, Inc. terminal manager in Virginia and Superior. “We have as many drivers as we've ever had, but there's a lot of work out there and not enough people are coming into the industry anymore.”   

  Hibbing Community College's (HCC) existing automotive technician, diesel mechanics and professional truck driver commercial drivers' license programs have made the college a recognized leader in transportation training.

  However, college officials want to rev up that success.

  “We're looking at taking our three existing programs to a point of offering new curriculum that meets the needs of industry,” said Michael Raich, HCC provost. “Our staff is going to go around the state and country in a professional development capacity, find out what the gaps may be, and based on what we hear continue our efforts to build partnerships.”   

  Like many other industries in the region, transportation is facing a workforce crunch.

  A lack of skilled workers, the need for more women in the transportation workforce, increased awareness of the available jobs and training, a need to attract more students from outside the region, and simply finding enough qualified, dependable workers, are among the transportation industry's challenges.

    “We don't have enough skilled workers,” Joe Abeyta, a member of the Operating Engineers told college officials July 24 at a transportation summit at HCC. “We have workers, but they don't have the right background. A lack of training and a lack of skilled workers is our biggest issue.”

  Focus groups at the summit honed in on additional issues and opportunities.

  Work is plentiful for truckers, say transportation officials.

  “The economy is better than it's been in 10 years,” said Hill. “2017 was our best year since 2007 and 2018 is even better, When President Trump got elected, that's when it all broke loose.”     

  “There's lots of work out there,” said John Bright, an HCC diesel mechanics instructor who reported on one of the focus groups findings. “There are unlimited opportunities, but these companies don't have the people to do the work.”  

  To attract more workers, transportation companies are stepping on it.

  Wayne Transports, whose 700 drivers haul in all 48 lower states and Canada, for the first time recently hired a driver recruiter. The average age of Wayne Transports' drivers is $57,000, underscoring the need for replacement workers, said Hill. 

  “We need more drivers who can be dispatched from Virginia (Minn.), but who might live in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan or Ohio,” said Hill. “We have been able to pick up some drivers from eastern Wisconsin in the Green Bay and Milwaukee area.”    

  Halvor Lines, with main offices in Superior, has tractor-trailers equipped with satellite television, GPS, automatic transmissions, two beds, and allows drivers to bring pets along, said Debbie Landry, Halvor Lines director of recruiting and driver services.

  To meets its labor needs, Halvor Lines has already reached out beyond the region to recruit and hire workers from other parts of the country, said Landry. Yet, finding enough employees is expected to remain a continuing challenge within the region.

  Unemployment in northeastern Minnesota is currently 3.7 percent, essentially deemed full employment, according to Erik White, a Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development regional analyst. 

  And the number of available jobs in the region is growing, said White. The number of vacant jobs in northeastern Minnesota has grown to 9,762 in 2017 from 4,000 in 2007. But due to retirements within the baby-boomer generation and a lack of regional population growth, transportation, along with other industries, are having difficulty finding enough well-trained, dependable replacement workers.

  Within DEED's Region 3 area of northeastern Minnesota, the number of workers within the transportation industry has dropped to 3,971 in 2017 from 4,639 in 2002, according to White.  Meanwhile, the number of people in the region able and willing to work is expected to shrink to 150,198 in 2030 from 159,281 in 2020. With more jobs available and fewer workers, the number of job seekers per job vacancy is currently at 0.9 worker per job, said White. That's put the regional labor market into a tourniquet.

   “It's a tight labor market all around, but especially in Minnesota,” said White. “While there will be hundreds of openings, primarily due to retirements, there will be little or no growth in different occupations due to the availability of new workers. It means attracting more people to the region and retention.”

   The labor crunch is good for workers. To keep reliable employees, businesses are adjusting.

  “To retain workers, there's been businesses that have had to raise wages,” said White. “There's also businesses that are raising wages to keep up with inflation.”

  HCC's efforts to respond to the transportation workforce needs are already rolling.

  In May, the Iron Range Higher Education Committee approved $85,000 for program research and planning of a Center of Transportation and Logistics at HCC.

  Five cents per ton of the Taconite Production Tax paid by Iron Range mining companies is used for higher education programs at educational institutions within the 13,000 square-mile Taconite Assistance Area. In 2017, mining companies paid a total of $2.70 per ton for distribution in 2018.  

  All expenditures from the Higher Education Account are approved by the higher education committee, made up of four members of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation commissioner, the president of the Northeast Higher Education District (NHED), a member appointed by the governor, and a member appointed by the University of Minnesota president.

    The higher education funding gives the five NHED colleges a boost in developing programs designed to fit the needs of regional industries.

  “We want to be strategic, and we need to be as current as possible to employers' needs,” said Bill Maki, NHED president. “We want to take our current programs, make sure we're staying connected with industry in making these changes and not making changes in areas that the employer would not be on board with.” 

  Maki says the summit showed that transportation leaders want to be engaged with education in addressing the workforce issues.

  “There's strong interest in creating an advisory committee on our programs,” said Maki. “This is where the discussion started. As we move along, we'll see what investments might be in this area and continue our relationship.”   

 “We're very fortunate to having funding so we can develop any type of program, but we need to figure out how to drive people to that training,” said Roy Smith, talent development director for NHED and Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation. “We need to engage the region and the community as a whole in the importance of transportation and that this is a lucrative industry. There's a lot of money to be made. It's all about developing the programming and the message that moves people to the training.” 

  With continued input from industry partners, new transportation programming that could help meet workforce needs could be implemented at HCC, said Raich.

  “We have a pretty solid foundation with our three programs,” he said. “But we could look at whether there's a fast-track diploma that we could offer or look at adding simulators. Basically, we just want to make our programs better.”

Lee Bloomquist is an Iron Range-based freelance writer.