HARTFORD, Conn. — The effort to overcome the nation’s truck driver shortage has gained new support from an unlikely source — a partnership between Connecticut’s Department of Corrections (CDC) and Department of Motor Vehicles (CDMV). The two agencies now operate a program that helps incarcerated individuals prepare to earn their commercial driver’s license (CDL) while still behind bars, helping to equip them for employment upon their release.
The program has the full support of Connecticut’s trucking community, largely attributable to the efforts of former State Sen. Will Haskell who championed a bill for the program in the state legislature.
“This is a ‘win-win’,” Haskell said during hearings on the bill in May. “Many formerly incarcerated individuals have trouble finding work upon release, which can drive them back into crime. Meanwhile, workforce shortages in the trucking industry have strained our supply chain, here in Connecticut and across the country.”
Uzoma Orchingwa, co-founder of Emerge Career, a job-training service that specializes in helping low-income and difficult-to-employ candidates, immediately saw how his company could join forces with the CDC and CDMV to make the program a success. He helped kick off the program in early 2022.
“Ninety percent of people coming out of incarceration in this country have no access to job training,” Orchingwa said, noting that his company provides online and video-based training while people are still imprisoned to prepare them to earn their CDL — and hopefully obtain a job soon after they are released.
“We actually have some candidates who emerge with their CLP (commercial learner’s permit) and are pre-hired,” he said.
Western Express and Schneider are two carriers that have stepped up to hire graduates of the Emerge Career program.
“To date, we have a 100% job placement rate. We’ve graduated 30 students to date and are contracted for 100 by the end of 2023,” he said, adding that, while all students to date have been hired by carriers, that isn’t necessarily an indication the record will continue.
“We’ve received feedback that most carriers are open to hiring students who were in prison for non-violent offenses,” he said. Those who have violent offenses on their records, he believes, will see more opposition from prospective employers.
Overall, he said, he is pleasantly surprised at the willingness of carrier to hire the program’s students. Perhaps part of the willingness stems from the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut’s (MTAC) support of the program when it was still a legislative bill.
“We are fully supportive of giving incarcerated individuals a second chance,” said MTAC president John Blair. “MTAC sees this program as a way to fill job openings while helping the very important reentry program.”
Orchingwa says the program is open to women as well as men.
In fact, one of the first graduates was Florene Little, a former inmate who says she has wanted to be a truck driver for years — but the cost of training stood in her way. Through the Emerge Career program, she was able to overcome that barrier. But the biggest barrier she faced was getting a job.
“You’ll be judged for your record,” said Little, who now drives an 18-wheeler on long-haul routes. “So, I feel like I got a second chance.”
While indications from the first year suggest that the program has been a success, Orchingwa doesn’t want to make too many assumptions based on a small sample size. But he is talking with other correctional institutions in San Diego, Cal., Alexandria, Va., Worchester, Mass., and New York about bringing the program to those communities.
While Emerge Career tries to make the program available to as many students as possible, they do have qualifications that must be met.
“We vet the students before they enroll,” Orchingwa said. “We want to make sure they will qualify for a CDL after they are on the outside. We don’t want to build false hope when a prospective student has something on their record that will prevent them from getting a CDL.”
Orchingwa notes that literacy is a very important qualifying aspect of the program, and says he’s pleased with the program’s progress.
For a trucking industry in need of more drivers and a corrections system in need of better preparing inmates for reentry, Orchingwa and Emerge Careers are providing a service that is on the verge of going nationwide.
“Our students find that they enjoy traveling across the country while driving trucks and being able to provide for their families,” he said.
Since retiring from a career as an outdoor recreation professional from the State of Arkansas, Kris Rutherford has worked as a freelance writer and, with his wife, owns and publishes a small Northeast Texas newspaper, The Roxton Progress. Kris has worked as a ghostwriter and editor and has authored seven books of his own. He became interested in the trucking industry as a child in the 1970s when his family traveled the interstates twice a year between their home in Maine and their native Texas. He has been a classic country music enthusiast since the age of nine when he developed a special interest in trucking songs.