NEW YORK — Just over a year ago, Patrick Greene was working for one of the nation's oldest investment banks. Now he's driving a truck.
Greene was a purchasing manager who arranged travel for Bear Stearns executives. He was laid off in July 2008, a few months after JPMorgan Chase & Co. took over. He tried to find work at similar companies, but with no luck. So, after about 40 resumes came to dead ends, Greene decided to learn to drive an 18-wheeler at Edison, N.J.-based Smith & Solomon trucking school.
"It's something I always thought I would like, and just never got to do," Greene said. Despite trucking's long hours and being on the road away from his wife and children for weeks at a time, Greene, 49, liked the idea of a career change after years behind a desk.
A growing number of people are trading white collars for blue as the recession and layoffs dictate some tough choices about earning a living. And trucking schools are seeing more of these former white-collar workers as the recession drags on.
Smith & Solomon is one of many trucking schools across the country enrolling older applicants from a variety of white-collar jobs. Decent pay and a relatively short training time is attracting new blood in a stalled economy.
"We have students come to us after spending their whole professional life in an office," Smith & Solomon owner Todd Hyland said. "Then, all of a sudden, they're getting laid off."
A heavy truck or tractor-trailer driver earns an average of $37,560 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A student can complete training in just three to six weeks, and there are few restrictions on receiving a commercial driver's license other than a clean bill of health and a decent driving record.
Hyland says recent applicants at his school are in their 40s and 50s, about 10 to 15 years older than typical students just a few years ago. But many of these new drivers don't necessarily see trucking as a long-term gig.
"It's a way to kind of wait out this storm in this period where the job market has been so unforgiving," said John Challenger, CEO of consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. "I think it's a game of musical chairs right now and (unemployed professionals) just want to get a chair."
There may also be a growing sense of desperation. The national unemployment rate jumped to 9.5 percent in June — the highest in 26 years — and is expected to keep climbing. That desperation is leading more white-collar folks to stiffen their upper lips, harness their pride, and try just about anything for a steady paycheck.
"I don't think there has been a recession that's hit white-collar workers so hard, perhaps since the Depression," Challenger said. "It's forcing many to re-examine how they think about their working life — or how they think about work in their life."
In other words, this may be the time where people are trying the careers they've always wanted, but never before deemed practical. More Americans are taking chances and jumping into new careers, he explained, because they don't have anything left to lose.
But the move from white collar to blue can be tough psychologically, Challenger said.
"When an individual perceives that kind of move as a demotion, certainly that can be a damage to their confidence to their self esteem," he said.
But there is a way to regain pride through learning a new set of skills, Challenger said.
"Some people are able to come to terms with those changes, and rebuild their confidence and their self-esteem through hard work, doing a good job and making their way through tough times," he said. "The key is to recognize that they're not alone."
While its ranks are filling now, the trucking industry has faced driver shortages for decades, and in recent years companies have recruited more minorities, couples, former military personnel and people looking for second careers.
Signing up with a trucking school can mean job placement opportunities and sometimes tuition reimbursement. Tuition at a trucking school can range between $3,000 and $5,000, depending on the type of certification.
Smith & Solomon currently has a job placement rate of about 88 percent. Because the trucking industry has a very high job turnover rate — historically just as many long-haul drivers go out as come in each year— trucking jobs might be more available than others. Most of the biggest trucking companies have contracts with trucking schools to feed them fresh recruits, but some also have in-house certification programs.
Of course, being part of the trucking industry is no easy ride these days. Freight demand has fallen off dramatically, as consumers cut back sharply on spending and demands for all kinds of goods has fallen. The industry's main group, the American Trucking Associations, said shipments carried by trucks in the U.S. in May — the latest month for which statistics are available — fell 11 percent from April.
Still, more applicants keep knocking at trucking school doors.
Karlin Johnson, 43, turned to trucking after 23 years at the Newark, N.J-based Star Ledger newspaper, where his last job was assistant manager in the circulation department.
Since getting a buyout from the newspaper, Johnson's been working nights as a security guard to make ends meet and going to trucking school during the day. He is also the minister of a small congregation in Jersey City, N.J.
Truckers are paid by the mile, so when there's no freight to haul, he won't get paid. But Johnson still believes trucking was the best option for him.
"I have faith that things will turn out the way we need them to," he said. "We just have to put ourselves in the best position to make that happen."
Allan Cohen came to trucking from publishing. He was in the industry for more than two decades, but migrated to trucking for reasons both romantic and practical.
"I love travel, so that was a big thing — driving was always therapy for me," he said. "But I was (also) looking for something that I thought would be a recession-proof industry."
Cohen said he was looking for stability in a new career, but not a lot of responsibility. He had made dozens of decisions daily in his life in publishing, and part of the lure of the road was giving up a manager's role.
For now, he said he is enjoying learning how to drive a big rig, but admits it has been a challenging experience.
"I was a computer geek — you don't go from that to trucking without a tough transition," he said.
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