The Bitterroot College’s Commercial Driver’s License Program received two boosts last week - the approval of a loan program and another step toward becoming a local testing center.

Since the CDL program's implementation three years ago, about 30 people graduated from its class each year. With a national shortage of truck drivers, the college is hoping to increase enrollment in the program to 50 people for the three-week class.

However, reductions in funding streams and grants each legislative cycle made it more difficult to afford the class, according to Scott Ralston, CDL program director. So the Bitterroot College reached out to local lenders, and the Ravalli County Federal Credit Union stepped up to make streamlined funding available to Bitterroot College students enrolled in the CDL program.

Darci Parsons, the credit union's president and chief executive officer, said she researched a credit union in Great Falls that created a lending program for CDL students. She designed a program she believes will benefit Bitterroot College, the credit union and up to 20 CDL students seeking a new career each year.

“Our core philosophy is ‘people helping people,’” Parson said. “I can’t think of anything more important than reaching out where there is a need for funding for our community.”

Ralston said truck drivers are so important to the economy that even to start, truck driving jobs pay well. The college even finds graduates jobs, with a 100 percent placement rate in everything from the oil fields in Eastern Montana and North Dakota to long-haul, cross-country trucking.

“Long-haul has the largest demand with an abrupt shortage of drivers in Montana and all over the country,” he said. “The reason the pay scale is better than average for western Montana is when you get your CDL and get into truck driving your pay scale is based on the national scale for truck drivers.”

He said starting pay is around $40,000 per year and can bump up to $60,000 within two years.

Ralston said the average age in the CDL program is 50.

“We’re not just targeting students right out of high school,” he said. “It is a continuing education program at the Bitterroot College that helps a lot of people starting a second or third career. It does pay well and has great job opportunities.”

The CDL program costs $4,800 then students pay about $200 for a Department of Transportation physical, a license upgrade fee and a drug screen.

The other boost to the CDL program is the possibility of a local testing area for drivers. Currently, drivers take their tests in Missoula. Ralston's application for a local testing center was approved by the state, and Ralston is hopeful that a legislative committee will give its final stamp of approval. Last Friday, the county road department widened the approach to the north entrance of the fairgrounds for CDL training and, possibly, testing.

“As far as the county commission, the fairgrounds, and Ravalli County, they are all in. We have a MOU (memorandum of understanding) for the state to sign,” Ralston said.

The next CDL program begins Aug. 28. For more information contact Bitterroot College at 103 S 9th St, Hamilton, call (406) 375-0100 or online visit www.umt.edu/bitterroot-college/.

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