WILLMAR - Jason Duininck has 20 jobs available right now at Duininck Inc. for applicants with a commercial driver's license.

He's concerned those jobs may not be filled.

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His company is not alone.

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, in the next decade central Minnesota is projected to have just over 4,000 job openings to fill - a combination of new positions and departing heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers. The 13-county region included in DEED's data stretches from Pine County to Renville County.

"The industry is needing so many drivers but nobody can find any," Duininck said.

In response to concerns about not filling those jobs, Duininck Inc. and a half-dozen other area businesses in the region teamed up with Ridgewater College, the Willmar School District and Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School District to provide a class this spring to help high school students obtain a CDL and be ready to fill one of those many available jobs.

This new program - which was available only to 18-year-old students - began in April and ends May 31. The 10 members of the class include seven students from Willmar High School, two from ACGC and one student from the Dream Academy in Willmar.

At the end, the students will have taken a classroom course, taken the written CDL permit test, obtained a required physical, gained experience driving a semi in a simulator lab and spent nearly 40 hours of behind-the-wheel training in an actual semi with an industry pro serving as a mentor.

"The push for this program came directly from industry," said Dayna Latham, training and outreach manager for the customized training program at Ridgewater College. "CDL drivers are in short supply and they're really struggling to fill those positions."

The class is taught by Corky Rollins, who has been a truck driver since 1966 and spent years teaching an adult CDL program in St. Cloud before that program closed in 2017 for a lack of students.

Rollins conducted the classroom segment at Willmar Senior High School and worked with students in the lab that was housed in a big trailer in the school parking lot. Rollins, along with industry drivers, also provided behind-the-wheel instruction to the students.

Levi Schimschock, a senior at ACGC, is one of 10 students who are midway through the eight-week program.

He had never driven a semi before but signed up for the class because he wants a CDL to get a good-paying day job to help support a weekend catering business he owns and operates.

Schimschock passed his written permit test and last week was in the simulator, pretending to drive a semi in a fairly realistic lab that includes three video screens depicting city and country roads on which the virtual semi is traveling.

"It's awesome," Schimschock said of the simulator training. "I got it down now and I'm ready to go and I'm ready to get behind the wheel."

That chance came the next day when Schimschock and five other students had their first chance to get in the seat of a real semi. After a few rough starts with the gears, Schimschock maneuvered the semi and 53-foot-long trailer through an empty gravel pit north of Willmar.

After spending a few days driving in gravel pits, Rollins said the students will take the semis onto country roads and eventually into town to learn to make wide turns around corners and watch for other vehicles and pedestrians while pulling a long trailer behind.

"It's a big responsibility to climb behind the wheel of a big rig," Latham said. She said students will spend at least 15 hours practicing backing up a semitrailer.

"We're looking to fill our bench and I think we can fill it this way," Duininck said last week while watching students in the simulator.

"We're getting kids that have a clean health card, are healthy, have a clean driving record. And so, we're excited about the future," he said.

The industry partners in the program are putting their money where their mouth is by providing semis for the kids to practice driving and employees to sit in the cab with the students during behind-the-wheel training.

Duininck said each of the industry partners is making a financial commitment of $3,000 to $5,000 to train the students.

It's an investment he believes will pay off.

"It's finding a new way to find good employees," he said. "We can make a real difference in the trucking industry."

Duininck said it was also make a difference to the students.

"We are graduating kids out of this program that will be ready and able to enter the workforce and make a good living doing it - without a student loan," he said.

Money from a Launch Your Future Today grant, which is a rural career and technical education initiation, helped cover some of the costs of the program.

Latham said it's hoped the program can be sustained and offered again next year to help local businesses meet a need and help students find a career.