By Peter H. Milliken
A state prison, a local community corrections association and a large, family-owned metal-hauling business are putting former prisoners on the road to financially rewarding truck-driving careers.
Participants in this pilot program begin their training and obtain their commercial driver’s licenses while they’re still incarcerated at the Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, which has two trucks based at the prison.
After they’re released from prison, the Masury-based P I & I Motor Express pays them as full-time trainees while they spend four to six months at the Community Corrections Association Inc. on Market Street in Youngstown.
While they’re with CCA, the trainees live at the association’s halfway house and drive trucks on short trips between steel pipe and coil plants in Sharon, Farrell and Wheatland, Pa., and the trucking company’s Broadway Avenue headquarters before they graduate to longer trips.
“Some of them have made a bad decision” that landed them in prison, said Joseph J. Kerola, P I & I president.
“That doesn’t mean they’re bad people,” he added. “People deserve a second chance. None of us are perfect. None of us have done everything right.”
“If we can give them a second chance, they don’t go back to where they got in trouble,” he said of the trainees.
The trainees are grateful for the opportunity Kerola has given them to live a new life.
“It’s definitely a good learning experience. I’ve learned a new career,” said Barry Adkins, of South Point, Ohio, the first graduate of CCA’s truck-driving training program, who is now completing his training at P I & I and expects the company to base him at its Middletown, Ohio, terminal, which is near his home and his family.
“It’s been life-changing. I just never really had a profession or a career, and now I’ve got that, and I’m on the right path in life,” Adkins said.
“I took on truck-driving in Richland Correctional to better myself and so I can have a job and support my family,” said Aaron Martin of Mansfield, one of four truck-driving trainees now in the CCA program.
“It’s a wonderful experience. They teach you a lot of things on how to be safe, strap down loads and tarp stuff and try to be on time at the pickups,” Martin said of his mentors at the Masury trucking company.
Founded in 1951 by Kerola’s grandfather, P I & I employs about 675 drivers and hauls metal on flatbed trucks east of the Mississippi River.
The company calls itself the country’s largest family-owned and operated flatbed carrier east of the Rocky Mountains.
“Truck driving is the backbone of the American economy,” said David J. Stillwagon, chief executive officer of CCA.
“It’s a great opportunity for somebody to gain employment long-term — to actually set up a career” and avoid returning to crime, he added.
“The demand for skilled truck drivers is going up and up,” Kerola said. “We have 40 trucks without drivers that we could fill, and there’s business there to do it,” Kerola said, adding that there are some 250,000 vacant truck- driving jobs nationally.
P I & I trainees earn slightly more than $30,000 a year, plus benefits, and eventually may earn up to $80,000 a year, Kerola said. “It’s a skill and a profession that’s portable anywhere in the country,” wherever the driver chooses to live, he added.
As to the reasons for the high vacancy rate, Kerola said truck driving is hard work; long-haul truck drivers spend considerable time away from their families; and the profession doesn’t get the respect it should.
“It’s a great opportunity. It’s guaranteed work with good pay. It’s not a job. It’s a career,” said Lawrence Androsek, a CCA vocational specialist.
“It’s hard work, but it’s extremely worthwhile.”