New program puts veterans in the driver’s seat

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Retired Army Staff Sergeant Carl Miller is the first graduate of Interstate Distributor Co.’s Military to Commercial Driver Training Program

By Hilary Reeves

Carl Miller, the first graduate of Interstate Distributor Company’s Military to Commercial Driver training program, was awarded something better than a rolled up diploma – he received what veterans across the country need most – a good job.

The unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty in the Armed Forces at any time since September 2001 stood at 9 percent in 2013, compared with a nationwide unemployment rate of 6.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Washington state, 10.9 percent of post-9/11 veterans have been unable to find gainful employment. Among the country’s 722,000 total unemployed veterans in 2013, 60 percent were over the age of 45.

Interstate took action, implementing a new program designed to leverage veterans’ unique skill-set to produce reliable, full-time drivers able to accommodate the company’s expected growth.

“We were noticing a major driver shortage,” said Nick Wakefield, director of recruiting and human resources at Interstate. “Truck driving is actually the third-most difficult job for us to fill. We started brainstorming how we were going to find our future drivers – who’s out there looking, and how we could make sure we were providing the type of jobs that people would want.”

Wakefield said Interstate was drawn to the idea of hiring veterans because of their career focus on safety and the availability of qualified applicants. “We knew there was a real draw-down coming,” he said, referring to the post-Afghanistan reduction in military forces.

Interstate designed its program after attending several conferences and working with a Congressional lobbyist to contact other companies and groups invested in hiring veterans. Applicants must be at least 22 years old, honorably discharged within the past six months, have two years of military vehicle operating experience, pass driving and criminal background checks and meet the physical requirements required of all Interstate drivers.

For Miller, the program was a perfect fit and couldn’t have come at a better time.

Miller, the youngest of seven siblings, grew up in Oregon. His stepfather was a truck driver, and he became interested in vehicle mechanics at an early age. After high school, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served four years of active duty, voluntarily extending his tour to deploy to Kuwait for the Gulf War. He served another four years in the Reserve.

“I originally joined the Marines for the college benefits,” Miller said. “While I was in the Reserves, I earned two associate degrees – one in heavy equipment mechanics and one in automotive mechanics. But when I graduated, I had no job opportunities. I had gotten married, had a daughter, and needed to collect a paycheck. So I decided to go back on active duty, get a paycheck, and get my finances squared away. I joined the Army to take care of my family.”

Miller joined the U.S. Army as a Specialist (E-4) in 1995, and spent the following 18 years on active duty. His service included two tours in Iraq, and one in Korea.

“I was a Light-Wheel (Vehicle) Mechanic,” Miller said, adding that he worked in the Motor Pool and drove a box van while on tour. Miller was honorably discharged from the Army on New Year’s Eve 2014 as a Staff Sergeant (E-6), more than 26 years after he first joined the Marines. He spent his last months at Joint Base Lewis-McChord attending job fairs; his evenings were spent studying for a CDL Class A.

It was at an October job fair that Miller met Mike Summers, also a veteran, who had been hired by Interstate just two days earlier as the first manager of its Military to Commercial Driver program. “If I can help fellow soldiers get a job, I’m all about it,” said Summers.

Summers is responsible for the sourcing of program candidates, matching those candidates with trainers, and the overall facilitation of the program.

Summers joined the Army Reserve in 2006, while attending Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. He chose Otterbein after an invitation to play Division III football, and, like Miller, was interested in utilizing the military’s college benefits. After graduation, Summers joined the Ohio National Guard and was immediately drawn to transportation assignments. He followed his wife to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2010, transferring into the Army Reserve.

“I figured one day I would get deployed,” Summers said. “That’s just the nature of the beast. I didn’t want to sit on a base the whole time. And as a Reservist, I knew I would have to get a job. I figured that with a transportation background there would be a lot of opportunities.”

Military service is a tradition in Summers’ family. His father spent 23 years as a truck driver and light wheeled mechanic in the Reserves. He served in Kuwait during the Gulf War and was there during the military’s initial push into Iraq in 2003.

Summers himself was there to see it end, standing at the crossing from Iraq into Kuwait when the last truck went through. After a year-long deployment that began just a week after his 2011 wedding, Summers returned safely to Tacoma to resume his reservist duties as a Company Commander for the 467th Transportation Company.

Summers initially applied for a job at Interstate in the fall of 2012, but didn’t make it past the third round of interviews. When the position to manage the Military to Commercial Driver program came onto his radar, he knew it would be a great fit.

“Being a soldier myself, I know the struggles veterans are facing,” he said, adding that the nine transition classes now required of all exiting military personnel by Congress – from resume-writing to interview preparation to vocabulary training – is a good start. But nothing means more than an incoming paycheck.

“Truck-driving is not the most glamorous job, but it’s so fundamentally important to the economy,” Summers said. “And the military is such a great fit for the industry. We’re used to serving long hours, doing dirty jobs. We have the situational awareness required to do the job safely every time.”

Though only months old, the program has graduated candidates who are driving successfully for the company. Candidates fill out an application, and their military driving experience and discharge information is verified. All program applicants have either the driving experience necessary to pass the state Department of Licensing’s CDL military skills test waiver, or they have attended commercial driving school. They are then officially hired, and attend an orientation before beginning a five-week “finishing” program that includes two weeks of local driving and two weeks of regional driving. All driving during the program is done with a trainer.

According to Wakefield, the passing of the military skills test waiver by Congress really set the program in motion.

“That was the watershed moment, when Congress passed the waiver,” said Summers. “That was the point in time we were able to really recognize military experience.”

Miller concluded that he’s proud to work at Interstate, and even prouder to have found a home for his passion. Miller, who obtained a commercial driver’s license and even a bus driver license in an effort to open himself to any and all employment opportunities, said Interstate is unique in that program participants and trainers are paid a flat salary during the training process.

“I can move anything with wheels,” Miller said. “My support team here has been outstanding. They’ve accepted me as part of the family. There’s no push for miles.”

“We want our drivers to get home safely to their families,” Summers echoed. He believes the program will continue to be successful many years down the line. “The desire to help soldiers…that’s not going to go away. That’s not ever going to be downsized.”

Wakefield agrees. “This program is truly a forever-ongoing opportunity for us,” he said. “We will gladly take any experienced veteran and have them join our family.”

The company is working to expand a lease-purchase program that allows drivers to become small business owners themselves.

“We know from studying military veterans that most of them are tired of taking orders from management,” said Wakefield. “They want to write their own destinies. This program is truly a pipeline and path to prosperity for these veterans.”

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Posted by intd on July 18, 2014 | Categories: News.