Gov. Ron DeSantis announces state funds for six truck driver programs across Florida

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis used a tractor-trailer as a backdrop Thursday morning in Hardee County as he announced the awarding of $2.3 million in state funds for college programs in truck driving and nursing.

DeSantis held a news conference at the South Florida State College Hardee Center in Bowling Green, just south of the Polk County border. A phalanx of SFSC students stood behind the governor, wearing hardhats and holding signs that said, “TRUCK YEAH.”

DeSantis talked about the national shortage of truck drivers that has contributed to the supply-chain delays arising during the COVID-19 pandemic. He cited an estimate from the American Trucking Association that the country needs to add 1.1 million drivers over the next decade to meet transportation demands.

DeSantis said his administration is dividing the $2.3 million among six institutions, with the bulk of it going for programs that provide training for Commercial Driver Licenses (CDL).

The recipients are: State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, CDL ($930,000); Manatee Technical College in Bradenton, logistics and CDL ($550,000); South Florida State College, based in Avon Park, CDL ($415,000); North Florida Technical College in Starke, CDL ($100,000); Florida Gateway College in Lake City, licensed practical nurse training ($135,000); and College of Florida Keys, licensed practical nursing and surgical technology training ($150,000).

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at South Florida State College in Bowling Green on Thursday about funds that are being allocated for workforce education, particularly to address a shortage of truck drivers.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at South Florida State College in Bowling Green on Thursday about funds that are being allocated for workforce education, particularly to address a shortage of truck drivers.

The money comes through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Funding to support rapid-training programs, spanning six to 16 weeks, DeSantis’ office said in a news release. The governor has directed $35 million in GEER I funds for short-term training programs at state and technical colleges since the start of the pandemic, the release said.

“You’ll have folks going into these high-demand fields, and you’ll have no debt and you will make a very good living,” DeSantis said.

The funds will benefit an estimated 1,200 students by May and 2,000 by August, the news release said.

The governor repeated a point he has often made — that a four-year university degree is not the only avenue toward a solid career. Even as he praised Florida’s State University System as the nation’s best, the governor suggested that some degrees are not worth pursuing.

“A four-year university degree is not always the best way to be successful,” DeSantis said. “In fact, you have a lot of people that will go deep into debt and they’ll end up with a degree in something like zombie studies, and then they wonder why the seas don’t part for them.”

Previously: More cargo at Florida ports ? Truck driver shortage could bring challenges

More: At annual Lakeland forecast breakfast, economist predicts 4% growth for U.S. economy in 2022

More: Polk County's labor force is largest ever, but hiring challenges persist for employers

The event’s speakers included Joe Wright, chairman of board of Southeast Milk, a cooperative based in Hardee County. He is also president of V&W Farms.

Wright said that Southeast Milk has a fleet of 400 milk tankers and 135 tractor-trailers, which the cooperative uses to collect and deliver milk throughout Florida. Its clients include Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets, he said.

The cooperative would like to have 160 truck drivers but currently has only 130, Wright said.

“We’ve had a chronic shortage of drivers for several years now,” Wright said. “We feel like we’ve found a goldmine in hiring drivers from the driving schools in our state colleges.”

Traditionally, transportation companies would pair a novice with an experienced driver for an apprenticeship process of six or eight weeks, Wright said.

“We recently had a driver from South Florida State College, a graduate,” Wright said. “After three days we turned him loose, he was so well prepared.”

Drivers entering the industry can earn $65,000 a year, and the pay rises to $85,000 for experienced drivers, Wright said.

South Florida State College President Thomas C. Leitzel also spoke. He said his college’s program equips students to earn Commercial Driver Licenses in just six weeks.

Leitzel said the $415,000 award will enable his school to acquire its first truck-driving simulator. That equipment will help prepare students for road conditions they won’t see in Florida, such as snow and ice, Leitzel said.

"That simulator is used to get students advanced, so that when they go in that big rig they’re better prepared,” Leitzel said.

The acronym “CTE,” for career technical education, was heard often during the 30-minute news conference.

Henry Mack, senior chancellor for the Department of Education, said CTE has traditionally been viewed as inferior to an academic education. But Mack, who oversees the Division of Career, Technical and Adult Education, said a commercial or technical degree can lead to a career with the same median earnings as one dependent on an academic degree.

DeSantis said he has made a priority of promoting alternatives to academic degrees.

“Our goal is to make Florida the No. 1 state for workforce education by 2030,” DeSantis said. “We weren’t even in the top 25 when I became governor. We’ve really moved up since then, but we want to keep the momentum going.”

DeSantis used the event to launch into his almost-daily criticism of President Joe Biden and White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci. He again blasted Biden for seeking a federal mandate requiring large companies to have employees either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo regular testing.

“If they would have put that in, you look at if just 5% of truckers end up leaving the industry because of some heavy-handed mandate, you would be in dire, dire straits in terms of the supply chain,” DeSantis said.

The governor called a special session of the Legislature in November to pass a law barring employers from enforcing vaccine requirements. The Supreme Court has since struck down the federal mandate, though it allowed a rule requiring health-care workers to be vaccinated.

Florida has directed hospitals and clinics to ignore the federal rule.

DeSantis ended the event without taking any media questions, as he usually does at news conferences.

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: DeSantis announces state funds for truck driver programs at Hardee event

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