Life after high school looks a bit different for every Wyoming graduate. Some are set on college or a career. Others are more worried about making money this summer. In an effort to prepare students who are less interested in academic options, one high school started a program that trains some seniors to be commercial truckers.
For the final two weeks of his Douglas High School career, Garret Blackburn has been spending most of his time hanging out in the parking lot.
“This is definitely a lot more interesting than sitting around the classroom,” Blackburn says.
Instead of at a desk, Blackburn is sitting in the driver’s seat of a semi-truck—maneuvering a 53-foot trailer around. He has some help from Don Hathaway—a seasoned truck driver—who’s sitting in the back of the cab.
Hathaway is an instructor with Colorado’s CDL College, hired by Douglas High School to prepare Blackburn and 7 other seniors to take the commercial drivers license test this month.
“A lot of jobs are requiring them,” says Blackburn. “From the mine to natural gas and oil. So, it’s just something that’s nice to have—and it opens up a lot of doors for job opportunities.”
In addition to this behind-the-wheel skills test, students are learning to do full inspections of the rig—to make sure everything’s in working order.
Colter Hamen peruses the engine compartment like a skilled mechanic --- talking nonstop for 10 minutes. The instructors say he only forgets one little thing.
Hamen growls with frustration.
“No, that’s okay,” says Hathaway.
“One’s okay,” says Hathaway’s partner Rod Williams. “They’re not going to stop you on your test for one.”
Hamen plans to play college football in South Dakota next year, but says trucking is a great summer job or plan B.
“No matter what, if college fails, if anything in life fails, everybody needs a truck driver,” says Hamen.
Converse County School District 1 assistant superintendent John Weigel started the program here this year.
“We’re kind of right in the center of the oil boom,” says Weigel. “So we have lots of opportunities for people to drive water trucks, sand trucks, tankers, all those kinds of things.”
Weigel says he’d seen countless want ads for truckers in the local paper—and had a handful of seniors at the school who were at-risk for dropping out.
“We thought this program might give them a little motivation to finish their graduation requirements—and have something they can fall back on for employment purposes,” Weigel says.
The training would have cost each of these kids nearly $3,000, but the school covered the cost using local mill levy dollars. That’s the same pool of money that covers tuition for Douglas High school students taking college classes.
Don Hathaway and Rod Williams usually train truckers for oilfield services companies like Baker Hughes and Halliburton. Hathaway says this is his first time teaching teenagers.
“But now, doing this with the high school guys, I would like to leave the oil industry and stick with the high school kids because—they’re like sponges,” says Hathaway. “They’ve got a desire to learn it—which makes it a lot easier.”
Hathaway’s been out here with these kids from 5:30 in the morning to 6:30 at night—every day for the past two weeks.
One of the students, Chris Bollinger, says the training has felt like a better use of his time than most school activities.
“I’m taking biology courses and all that stuff, but it has nothing to do with what I might do in the future,” says Bollinger. “This is exactly what I could do in the future—and they’ve taught us that.
Today is the last day of class, and the kids all head to the local Department of Transportation office to sign up to take their CDL tests later this month. As they wait in line, Hathaway pummels them with a pop quiz.
The test won’t be easy—but Garret Blackburn says he thinks he’s ready.
“I’m not entirely sure,” says Blackburn. “I get text anxiety really bad, so I start to freeze up and stutter. So, we’ll just have to wait and see, I guess.”
But Hathaway is confident this group of guys will pull it off. He says—even if they don’t all go on to be truck drivers like him—earning a commercial drivers license will give them a confidence boost.
“I think that’s going to help with anything they go to do in life,” says Hathaway. “Because they can reflect and look back and say, ‘hey, I accomplished this. There’s not much that I can’t do.’”
If all goes according to plan, this month—all eight of these Douglas High School students will have a high school diploma, a commercial drivers license—and some options for what to do next.
These reports are part of ‘The American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen’—a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis. Supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.