A leg up

Like all fleet owners, Charlie W. Johnson, chief executive of C.W. Johnson Xpress in Louisville, Ky., needs drivers. But instead of just wooing them away from other carriers, he’s creating his own. At the same time, he’s giving a second chance to those who desperately need one.

Johnson’s brainchild, Driving for Inner City Development, offers unemployed people living in poverty in Louisville’s inner city the opportunity to get their commercial driver’s license – at no cost to them – through a combination of classroom instruction at Jefferson Community and Technical College, hands-on driving practice and work with a driver trainer. At the completion of their training, Johnson, who runs his company in partnership with U.S. Xpress, guarantees them employment.

“We’re trying to show them how they can make changes in their lives and end up being a responsible person with a job,” Johnson says. The program is part of the Career Academy at St. Stephens Family Life Center, a nonprofit organization that helps struggling people find better career opportunities. The response to the program has been overwhelming, says Sherrie Lyons, academy director. After a local paper ran a story on the initiative, “People were meeting us at the door to apply,” she says.

Applicants must complete an evaluation and be interviewed by a panel before being approved for the program, which has funding for 40 students this year, partly through a $197,000 state grant. The panel tries to narrow the field to those who will stay with the program, as driving a truck is “not the easiest thing to do,” Lyons says.

Johnson sees a lucrative career path for some: the opportunity to own their own truck. “Those who really work hard, we’re going to help them get a leased truck so they can become entrepreneurs,” he says. With that goal in mind, the program also offers financial and personal counseling.

“The last part is we will relocate them back in their communities in affordable housing,” Johnson says, a move he believes will be a step toward revitalizing Louisville’s decaying inner city.

The program is a win all around, Johnson says: At-risk folks get a second chance, the trucking industry gets more drivers, and an impoverished area gets an economic boost. Whether it’s successful, of course, depends on the individual participants, many of whom are former felons and, in Johnson’s words, the “hard-core” unemployed. Nevertheless, he says, “If a person knows it’s their last chance, and they want to improve themselves, they can do it.”

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