Learning for the long haul

| July 06, 2007

Education opportunities help drivers advance their careers while on the road.

It took 29 years behind the wheel of a truck before former tanker hauler Richard Patterson realized his true dream.

Patterson spent his last 18 months as a trucker earning an associate’s degree in interdisciplinary studies through an online program at Kaplan University. Then he went to the police academy in his hometown, Columbus, Ga., and in November 2006 became what he’d always wanted to be – an officer of the law.

“I’m loving it,” Patterson says. “This is something I wish I’d done 30 years ago.”

Like most truckers – 53 percent, according to the 2006 Truckers News Reader Survey – Patterson bypassed college and went straight to work after high school. After spending six years in the Army, he had a family to support and no time for the associate’s degree required to enter the police academy, so he became a trucker, like his father.

“When I got out of the Army in ’78, my dad said the best thing to do right now is go into driving,” he says. “And I just stayed with it.”

But two years ago, the 51-year-old Patterson says he had enough of life on the road and trucker stereotypes.

“Everywhere you went it was like, ‘you’re worthless,’ and I knew I was better than that,” he says.

He researched distance learning programs online and decided on Kaplan because of its competitive pricing and convenience. (Tuition for undergraduate/graduate programs at Kaplan begins at $305 per credit hour, including instructional materials.)

“Kaplan had everything sent to my house a week prior, so I had time to get home and pick it up,” Patterson says.

Though he had little computer experience, he bought a laptop and wireless Internet service and jumped in with both feet.

“There were many nights I’d have to call my son and find out how to fix it,” he says. “It was a learning experience.”

Once he got the hang of it, he studied in the truck every day to complete his weekly assignments and tests.

“If I pulled into a customer, and they said [loading time] was three to four hours, I’d sit in the truck doing my schoolwork,” he says. “When they changed over to the 10-hour rule for sleeping, I’d spend a couple of that doing my schoolwork.”

Distance learning is an education method tailor-made for the driving lifestyle, whether you want to change careers entirely like Patterson, move into management, improve your business skills or simply have the satisfaction of earning a degree.

“To keep working and pay your bills and also go to school, that’s the only way to do it,” Patterson says. “You can work your job, and whenever you get a free minute, you can study your lessons for that week.”

A serious commitment
But learning in the truck takes time and dedication – even more dedication than a traditional education, according to The Sloan Consortium’s 2005 online education study. Sixty-four percent of the educators at the 1,000 colleges and universities surveyed said students need more discipline to succeed in an online course than in a face-to-face course.

“You have to be dedicated, and you have to want to do it,” Patterson says. “It’s an everyday thing. It’s like doing two jobs. When you’re not working this job, you have to be working at school.”

Online and correspondence courses naturally require more written communication.

“The assignments are based heavily in writing,” says Jon Ricketts, director of fleet development for InCab University (incabu.com), a transportation-centered online accredited college degree program offered through Mountain State University in Beckley, W.Va. “It promotes writing so the students are engaged to a point that they can absorb the information even though they’re not sitting in a classroom listening to a professor.”

To get the most out of a class – whether long-distance or face-to-face – educators recommend students spend one hour per week studying for each semester hour.

Owner-operator Mike Cerra of Sherrard, Ill., who’s been driving a truck for 10 of his 31 years, spends at least 24 hours a week doing online coursework for the doctorate of pharmacy he’s been working toward for the past three years.

Cerra drives coast-to-coast in the busy moving industry – leased to Alexander Mobility Services with his team driver and wife Jennifer – but makes time for a 24-hour course load each semester, picking and choosing his web-based classes from four different colleges.

The average semester course load – even for traditional students – is 15 to 16 hours, but Cerra chooses to do more.

“It’s an elite field to get into, and they look at how rigorous your schedule was,” he says. “Usually I work during the day, and every night I do my studies. Every weekend is all-day procedures.”

Cerra and his wife recently upgraded to a larger custom sleeper in their 2007 Peterbilt 386 to incorporate a dedicated work station for his laptop and schoolbooks. He has two more years of schooling and one year of residency to complete.

“At first, I didn’t know what to expect – if [the classes] might be a joke or something – but they’re not,” Cerra says. “You have to be motivated. You have to discipline yourself. If I were to recommend it to anybody, I’d say start slow. Take one course and see how you like it, because when people are overwhelmed and backed into a corner, that’s when they fail.”

Online or face-to-face?
Drivers who can get home on a regular basis or have a dedicated route might prefer enrolling in a weekend or night class at a local college, but for over-the-road drivers, online education may be the simplest option.

“You know what’s expected of you weeks in advance, so you can manage your own schedule,” says InCab U’s Ricketts. “The teachers are eager to work with their schedules, and they understand the lifestyle. They’ve got specific needs, and that’s what we want to address the most.”

The number of distance learning programs is growing each year – especially in the area of online studies. According to recent Sloan studies, more than half of all post-secondary learning institutions offer online undergraduate-level courses, and the percentage is much higher within large, public institutions.

In addition, schools like Kaplan University (www.kaplan.edu) and the University of Phoenix (www.phoenix.edu) focus on adult distance education and online courses. The average age of Kaplan’s students is 34 years.

Online courses are the most flexible and readily available, but they require at least basic computer savvy and more initial investment – you must have a computer and regular access to an Internet connection.

“It’s pretty in-depth and can be overwhelming at the beginning,” says Cerra, who has carried a laptop in his truck for the past six years. “But with the initial instruction the programs have, people can learn to do it fairly quickly.”

Without in-person teacher/student interaction, some students might have a harder time learning or focusing.

“It takes a lot of perseverance,” Cerra says. “I’m required to take the same exact mid-terms and final exams, but I don’t have the teacher in front of me explaining something.”

But many proponents of distance education argue that students learn as much as or more in the discussion-heavy online courses than they do in traditional classrooms.

According to Sloan’s most-recent online-education study, a relatively small but growing percentage – 16.9 percent, a growth of 40 percent since the 2003 study – believe online learning outcomes are actually superior to those of face-to-face. Sixty-two percent believe online learning is equal to face-to-face learning.

“It depends, we have found, on the student,” InCab U’s Ricketts says. “For people like our nation’s truck drivers, who don’t have the luxury of coming off the road and giving up the income, this is the perfect opportunity to fulfill that dream while they are still gainfully employed.”

Online learning can actually provide more opportunities for students and teachers to interact. Patterson, who graduated with honors from Kaplan’s associate’s program, recommends taking online seminar classes, which are like a chat room.

“If there’s something you don’t understand, you can talk to the teachers and other students,” Patterson says. “I hadn’t been in school for 30 years, so when algebra came up, I was kinda lost. I picked up how to do it through talking to the professor and e-mailing her back and forth. I passed it with a B+. I was real proud of myself.”

At InCab U, students travel through the coursework in groups, so they can develop relationships with their fellow students.

“You rely heavily on relationships you form with your classmates online,” Ricketts says. “You’re not being thrown in with different people.”

The students also have e-mail access to their professors, and they can post questions on a discussion board, so other students can provide feedback.

“You do rely a lot more on your individual ability to gather information and process information, but the cool thing about these online programs is you’ve got all these resources at your fingertips,” Ricketts says.

According the 2006 Truckers News Reader Survey, about 62 percent of truckers use the Internet, and laptops are growing more popular.

“More and more drivers are carrying laptops,” Cerra says. “I’ve got a mobile satellite on my truck, but a lot of drivers are using the WiFi at truckstops. It’s becoming a lot more friendly for drivers.”

Education for the long haul
Education isn’t strictly a route to leaving the truck behind. Cerra thinks of his future pharmacy degree as a back-up plan.

“I enjoy my career, but this will allow me to fall back on something if I need to,” he says. “If we have kids, and my life changes, I’ll have something to look forward to. It’s a phenomenal living, but it’s hard to do your whole life.”

If you’re planning to stay behind the wheel for the long haul, furthering your education – whether through a college or professional program – can improve your career.

“The better educated a driver is, the more it helps their job,” Cerra says. “Having a degree in something like accounting can make or break a person’s career. The industry is getting more technical, and you have to know a lot more than you did 10 years ago.”

InCab U is geared specifically toward drivers who plan to stay in the industry.

Launched in 2005 by TransMarkets Technologies, a software and e-commerce provider to the trucking industry, InCab U currently offers a bachelor of science degree in organizational leadership, which focuses on developing the skills of critical thinking, problem solving and decision making with a concentration in transportation management.

“Case studies that the drivers will be working on will be specifically designed for their lives as professional truck drivers,” Ricketts says.

The accelerated program allows transportation employees to complete a degree in a minimum of 18 months and prepares them for the next level – a master of science in strategic leadership. InCab U will also work with drivers to determine if any of their prior learning or military experience can be converted to credit value.

“A lot of our truck drivers are former military and formerly from the service industry like policemen, firemen, and they can parlay that into academic credit,” Ricketts says. “There are a lot of drivers out there who probably have credits they don’t even know they have. We’ll talk to you and work with you.”

InCab U plans to expand into safety training and professional programs geared toward helping owner-operators become more profitable. It is also working with fleets to offer its programs as incentives to attract and retain drivers.

“Our goal is to be a one-stop shop for all things educational in transportation,” Ricketts says.

Existing programs like Overdrive magazine’s Partners in Business manual and owner-operator business services firm ATBS’ Course of Advanced Business Standards [see “Independent Trucking 101,” pg. 24] are designed to help drivers become owner-operators and owner-operators develop better business skills. Seminars, manuals and online courses are available.

“Even a driver that doesn’t own his own truck needs to know how to manage his money,” Cerra says. “It can help them make decisions that can affect them and their companies.”

Financial aid is available for both distance-learning and face-to-face courses through individual institutions. At Mountain State University/InCab U, where tuition is $270 per credit hour, working adults qualify as full-time for financial aid purposes if they complete four courses in a 16-week semester.

“There are a lot of government-subsidized loans that have phenomenal rates, and students don’t have to pay on those until 6 months after they finish the program,” Ricketts says. “It’s a powerful tool for drivers to check into who are serious about starting this.”

Whatever options you choose, Cerra recommends making the choice to further your education.

“I think it only helps the industry,” he says. “The more educated people we have, the less stereotypical we are.”

Patterson is planning to go back for his bachelor’s degree when things settle down with his new job. He’s considering criminal psychology, so he can help the mentally ill.

“Not too many people my age get the chance to start over,” he says. “But it’s never too late to finish your dreams.”


Finding Your Course
Almost every major university and many small ones offer online courses, so there’s plenty to choose from. An Internet search is ideal for finding – and narrowing down – your choices.

You may want to pursue a degree – associate’s, bachelor’s or graduate – or just take some classes for fun. There are courses available in everything from accounting to philosophy and creative writing to trucking business.

Before you settle on a school, determine whether it is a fully accredited institution. There are fraudulent degree programs, so make sure you choose a reputable one.


A Unique Opportunity
Sitton Motor Lines offers scholarships to drivers and their families

Driver Mike Yunek was greeted with a new prospect at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky., this March. Sitton Motor Lines, the Joplin, Mo.-based van fleet he drives for, was announcing a recruiting and retention program unique to the trucking industry – awarding full and partial scholarships to drivers and drivers’ families to attend a degree program at Joplin-based Missouri Southern State University.

Brian Sitton, COO of the 450-truck fleet, says the program sprang from a company connection to Jack Spurlin, vice president of lifelong learning at MSSU, who proposed the partnership in conversation with Sitton’s Director of Customer Service Jason Spurlin (Jack’s son), who’d heard from drivers about their desire to obtain four-year degrees.

The program is set to begin this fall, with a maximum of 6 credit hours for drivers wishing to participate in distance-learning courses in law enforcement, general studies, economics and finance, marketing/management, nursing, criminal justice, accounting, international business and health science. Sitton will pay for 50 percent of tuition to the first 50 drivers to sign up. Tuition overall at MSSU is $170 per credit hour.

The driver must maintain a minimum average of 9,500 miles per month and a 2.0 (C) grade point average. And after that first semester, drivers can apply for a gold scholarship, which will be awarded to the top 10 percent of applicants – winners will receive full tuition for up to 12 hours worth of courses, textbook expenses included.

The same goes for the drivers’ families, one member of the family at a time. Jack Spurlin says this is what really makes the program unique: “We work with several area companies who have scholarship programs, but I don’t know of any company who’s extended this benefit to the employee’s family.”

“When I was younger,” says Yunek, “I chose the Marine Corps instead of college. With this, I can put my daughters through school. They’re far enough apart at 12 and 15. They’re both thinking about college at this point, and my youngest is extremely intelligent – she’ll go a long way with this.”

Recruiter Kurtis Denton says if a driver signs up, the company will debit his weekly paycheck $50, depositing that money into a savings fund until his portion of the fall tuition is met, $450 for 6 hours. He also says Sitton will get a discount on tuition from MSSU once the volume of program participants is built up. “And the more we get, the more they’ll cut off of it,” says Denton.

“It’s win-win,” says Spurlin, “for us, for Sitton and for the drivers and their families.”

Yunek’s looking forward to working on a degree in business administration himself. “I haven’t exercised my brain in a new way in a long time,” he says. Before, he says, he couldn’t afford to do it. “Keeping track of the money in the business has always been my downfall in the past,” he says, “and knowing how to do it and how to manage the trends is where I need work. I’m excited about starting.”

Yunek says Sitton drivers get 8 hours of Idleaire use per day, so he’ll be able to use a computer to work online through course material. He’ll use the degree to get into buying and leasing trucks to Sitton, with which he’s been associated for 13 years – “I don’t really want a road job if it doesn’t include them,” he says.

“If someone comes to Sitton Motor Lines and this becomes their final job, fantastic,” says Brian Sitton. “But they’re getting more with this new program. If a driver wants to put his daughter through college, and it takes him four or five years and he’ll stay with us for that time, great. And how many drivers are out there thinking, ‘How did I end up here?’ If we can give them an outlet to get them to another level and they’ll stick with us while they’re doing it, even better!”
- Todd Dills


What is Distance Education?
Distance education takes several forms. You can choose the one that works best for you.
Traditional – Course content is delivered in writing or orally with no use of online technology.

Web Facilitated – Course uses web-based technology to facilitate what is essentially a face-to-face course. For example, the syllabus and assignments might be posted online but can still be done in writing.

Blended/Hybrid – Course blends online and face-to-face delivery. A substantial proportion of the content is delivered online, typically uses online discussions and has some face-to-face meetings.

Online – Most or all of the course’s content is delivered online. Typically has no face-to-face meetings.

Source: The Sloan Consortium’s study “Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005″


Independent Trucking 101
College courses aren’t the only venues for continued education out there. ATBS, the largest owner-operator business services firm in the nation, launched its Course of Advanced Business Standards (CABS) just over a year ago.

Angie Bruskotter, who wrote and helped develop the 12-part course, says it was originally intended for “new owner-operators, people just starting out, and existing owner-operators” wanting to get a firm grasp of their business.

“There are a lot of veteran drivers out there who know a lot about trucking,” Bruskotter says, “but they might not know as much about basic business principles. Drivers will come to us and say, ‘Why are you calling it a business? I just bought a truck. I don’t get it.'”

CABS covers the essential aspects of running an owner-operator business in detail, from accounting principles and choice of business structure to how to create and analyze a budget and a profit-and-loss statement to various tax, fuel, maintenance, time management, driver/carrier relationship and health/safety issues. The 12 seminars come on CDs with accompanying workbooks, and timeframes are suggested for each section – with a total 24 weeks, or six months, allowed for completion of the course. On average, says Bruskotter, drivers and owner-operators finish in four to five months, adding that ATBS’s instructors are available to “help keep people motivated and on schedule when it looks like they’re slowing down.” A final test is administered online.

Roehl Transport leased owner-operator Tony Martin, of Newnan, Ga., has just finished lesson six. He’s been in the industry since 2001, four of those years as a company driver, and he calls CABS the “only format of information I’ve seen that explains the trucking industry and how the money is made, and where it comes from. That information is not in any book,” he says.

CABS has also reinforced valuable knowledge Martin picked up while operations manager for the Charlotte, N.C.-based office-furniture contractor the Facility Group. “Most people have this ideology that you win with big windfalls, but in real business that’s not how you make your money. The truth is you make your money one nickel at a time.”

CABS has shown him that in trucking, it’s not just how much you’re making per-mile or how many miles you run but how many you run “efficiently. The better educated truck drivers are more likely to run a leaner portfolio in their business, and they’ll be more profitable. They know what their mistakes are.”

The course is available for $500 to drivers and owner-operators, though your carrier may offer financing or special programs. And it’s not just for drivers. Since its introduction, CABS has seen expansion, Bruskotter says, in fleet personnel’s participation. Just as it helps owner-operators and drivers “understand their relationship to their carriers,” Bruskotter says, it helps as a “training tool for fleet employees – recruiters, dispatchers, retention personnel, fleet managers” and others to understand their drivers’ business.

ATBS also partners with Overdrive magazine to create the Partners in Business manual, which Bruskotter says is comparable to CABS but covers “a lot more stuff in less detail.” It helps veteran, new and aspiring owner-operators understand specific aspects of the business, offering numerous tips on how to understand costs, manage money, learn where fuel is the least costly and evaluate the virtues of buying vs. leasing a truck and various insurance options, among many other essentials. Its 26 chapters are available in a single volume for $14.95 or free at the Partners in Business seminar at the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas in August or Louisville’s Mid-America Trucking Show in March.
- Todd Dills

ATBS
www.attrucktax.com

Partners in Business
www.partners-in-business.com


Is Distance Learning Right for You?
Before enrolling in your first online or correspondence class, ask yourself these questions to determine whether you would respond well to learning without face-to-face contact.

Are you good at working independently? Distance education lets you do your class work when it’s most convenient for you, but you must be able to handle the responsibility of pacing yourself without the structure of regular classes. “If you get behind, it’s hard to catch up,” says former trucker and online student Richard Patterson.

Can you commit time each day or week to your course(s)? Distance-learning courses often require as much time and commitment as face-to-face courses. Depending on your course load, expect to study 10-15 hours per week.

Do you enjoy reading and expressing your ideas in writing? In online courses, nearly all communication is written. If you feel that you are weak in this area, try to brush up on your writing skills and find out how much writing is required for the course before enrolling. Typing skills also can be important in an online course.

Will you miss the experience of sitting in a classroom? While the level of interaction can be very high in online courses, some online students miss having the opportunity to see and listen to their instructor and classmates.

Are you comfortable using computers? The personal computer is the primary learning and communication tool in most online courses and even in traditional courses can be very helpful for typing papers and doing online research. You need to have some basic technology skills, such as word processing and Web browsing, and for an online course, regular access to an Internet connection.

Do you know why you are doing it? You may not have a crystal clear goal, but at least be sure you are not just playing around. It is work and eventually frustration might overwhelm you if you don’t see yourself getting closer to a goal.

If you’re still not sure, there are several detailed quizzes on the Web to let you evaluate your readiness for a distance-learning course. Try a Google search for “distance learning quiz” to find several.

Source: University of Illinois Online

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