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NORMAL — A school bus driver. An art teacher. A college student. The three women from different backgrounds have the same goal: to get their Class A Commercial Drivers License and drive big rigs.

They are enrolled in a 160-hour truck driver training course at Heartland Community College preparing them to take the state's license test.

“I love to drive. I love to travel,” said Holli Hays of Bloomington, a driver for Illinois Central School Bus company. “I love the kids at District 87, too. I would stay if it paid more.”

Pay is a big attraction to landing a job as an over-the-road, long-haul trucker.

Caleb Gee, recruiting manager at Nussbaum Transportation of Hudson, said, “I don't know of another industry where, for a $4,000 investment in a course, you can be making 45 grand in your first year.” By the end of the second year, that can rise to $65,000, he added.

But being an over-the-road truck driver is not for everybody.

“It's a lifestyle change. It's not just a career change,” said Gee.

That lifestyle includes long hours in the cab of a truck, days away from home, and eating at restaurants or cooking food at your truck.

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Heartland Community College CDL truck-driver training class student Holli Hays checks her mirror while driving in reverse.

The American Trucking Association estimates there is a shortage of about 500,000 drivers for long-haul trucking. About 6.2 percent of truck drivers are women.

Among barriers to attracting new drivers, besides time away from home, are CDL requirements, strict drug and alcohol testing, and clean driving records, according to the ATA.

“Any time you're on the road there can be unforeseen problems — breakdowns, weather, traffic,” said Hays, a student in the Heartland class whose family runs a trucking business. That can mean delays in celebrating holidays or birthdays, she noted.

“Be prepared to celebrate when the whole family gets home,” said Hays.

Another student, Daun Grief of Chenoa, is an art teacher but her fiance is an over-the-road driver and their plans are to drive as a team once she gets her CDL.

She said the class is providing good preparation.

“I never backed up a trailer in my life before the class. I never pulled a trailer in my life,” said Grief.

Sevin Headley of Fairbury is graduating in May from Illinois Wesleyan University with a degree in accounting, but she is getting her CDL to help her family.

“My parents own a carnival and need people to help drive the rides” between events, she explained.

Debbie Hale of Pontiac completed the Heartland course in August and has been working for Nussbaum since October. The former school bus driver and nurses aide said, “I personally like the freedom. … I like being outside.”

She said the Heartland course does a good job of preparing students to pass the state's CDL exam, but the learning doesn't end there.

“After being on the road almost six months, you're still learning,” she said.

Nussbaum provides additional training during a six-month probation period, said Gee. That training includes “not just the work part,” but also things like how to stay safe while sleeping at a truck stop and how to address fitness and healthy eating, he said.

The Heartland course includes 40 hours of classroom instruction and 120 hours behind the wheel. Forty-eight students have been involved in the program this academic year.

“There's a lot of information in a short period of time,” said Devin Davis, who has been teaching the course at Heartland for about a year.

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Heartland Community College CDL truck-driver training class instructor Devin Davis, right, looks on as student Daun Greif drives.

Much of the behind-the-wheel practice takes place in the parking lot at Midwest Food Bank in north Normal, where cones are set up to so drivers can practice backing up the tractor-trailer and even parallel parking.

“You're going to run over Devin,” one student says as another backs up the truck. They quickly tell a reporter not to worry — they aren't running over human beings.

“We named the cones,” said Headley. “We have to do something to keep us entertained when you're backing up for four hours.”

Heartland recently formed a partnership with Sysco Central Illinois, based in Logan County, under which eligible participants who complete Heartland's CDL program and pass the state's CDL exam can be selected for a 12-week apprenticeship program.

Grief's advice to anyone considering taking the class and becoming a truck driver is: “Don't wait, just do it.”

Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota

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Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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