ALEXANDRIA, Minn. - The truck driving program at Alexandria Technical & Community College can take up to 20 students.
Instead, it's been averaging about 13.
"There are a few reasons for that," said Carl Borleis, lead instructor of the Professional Truck Driving Program. "One of the big ones is the economy is doing pretty well so people aren't looking for new jobs."
With the economy ticking up, truck drivers are increasingly in demand. Across the country, the industry is short about 50,000 drivers, the American Trucking Associations says. Because of many truckers are nearing retirement, Borleis said he has heard that number could jump to 170,000 by 2020.
The industry faces challenges in recruiting drivers. Besides competition from other occupations, downsides include nights away from home and danger - it is one of the top 10 most dangerous occupations, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Last year, St. Cloud Technical & Community College closed its truck driving program, mostly because it couldn't recruit enough students, said Tom Cruikshank, the college's director of customized training. However, it continues to field queries from employers and prospective students and may reopen in 2018, he said.
This fall, a private truck driving program in St. Cloud also closed. Elizabeth Anvary, owner of TCE, Inc., said its month-long program drew a lot of interest, but most students couldn't afford the tuition.
Borleis said the 16-week-long Alexandria program has also faced hard questions, including shortening its duration and the possibility of closure.
"That's not the hope and the goal, but it's still a business that has to operate even though it's a public school," he said.
Employers definitely don't want to see it close, he said. Several times a week, he receives calls and emails from employers looking to hire. He passes the messages along to alumni of the program. Job placement for graduates age 23 and over is 100 percent, he said. Those below that age face a tougher job hunt for insurance reasons.
Employers have begun looking at ways to attract and keep more drivers, he said. Many companies offer tuition reimbursement as a sign-on bonus, which can help with the cost of Alexandria's $4,500 program. And wages have risen too, Boreis said. His graduates typically start at $40,000 and earn up to $70,000. Five years ago, that range was roughly $30,000 to $50,000 or $60,000, he said.
Companies have also tried to make driving careers more palatable. In the past, if a company had to ship something from Seattle to Chicago, one driver would haul the freight the entire way, Borleis said. Now, more companies are using a relay system, switching drivers along the way so that employees can spend more nights at home.
"The vast trend is people who want to be gone a day or two at the most," he said. "That's where the trucking industry has to figure out how to make that more of the norm."
The shortage of truckers might accelerate the move to driverless trucks. Borleis said he expects driverless trucks to be on the highways in as little as five years to as far away as 20 years. What that looks like remains to be seen, he said. Some companies might go to "platooning," or hiring a driver for a lead truck followed by two or three driverless trucks. Already, Minnesota has tested self-driving buses in the Twin Cities.
Most of Borleis's students tend to be older, often switching careers.
That is true of Thomas Weller, 48, of Osakis. A service manager in the RV industry, he decided he wanted to stop managing people and drive professionally instead. He graduated a few days ago and already has job offers.
"I have my pick of anywhere I want to go," he said.
Meanwhile, businesses sometimes face delays in shipping or receiving products.
"Virtually every single company is affected," said Nicole Fernholz, executive director of the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission.