Stark State College is one of 30 schools across the state set to receive funding for its CDL programs.

There’s a shortage of truck drivers nationwide — a reported 80,000 in 2021. The state of Ohio is allocating millions over the next few years to offer financial aid to get more people certified and on the roads.

The U.S. Department of Transportation called the country’s supply chain stressed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, while also citing additional factors such as aging infrastructure and geopolitical disruptions as the root of bottlenecks and congestion. The American Trucking Associations called the industry the “lifeblood” of the U.S. economy, reporting drivers moved about 73% of the country’s freight in 2019.

This shortage has existed for years. Other types of workforce initiatives have come and gone. Randy Gardner, chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education, said the pandemic “probably” highlighted the sense of urgency around the issue this time around.

“I think it was just a growing concern,” Gardner said. “It was time we tried to address it directly.”

The funding comes via the state budget. Additional guidelines for the program stem from a state Senate bill that went into effect last month. Awardees will see $2.5 million in total for this round. Thirty schools — a list that includes for-profit colleges, technical centers and community colleges — then select which students enrolled in approved commercial driver’s license, or CDL, programs will receive it.

The way Ohio’s leaders plan to do that is through the Commercial Truck Driver Student Aid Program.

The money is split into two pools. One is a grant earmarked to go directly toward the tuition and fees a student must pay. The rest of the program’s costs will be covered via a loan. Students have to accept both portions of funding. Once they live and work in Ohio as a truck driver for a year, the loan will be forgiven.

“This is what public-private partnership needs to look like,” said Tom Balzer, president and CEO of the Ohio Trucking Association, in a recent news release.

A residency requirement isn’t a problem for students at Stark State College, according to Donald Ball, the college’s dean of business, engineering and information technologies.

“These are things that our students do anyway,” he said. “Most of the students that come to Stark State College want to work, live and reside in this general community.”

Leaders caution they’re still waiting to receive the final agreement from the state, but the college expects to see about $83,000. It’s one of two participating community colleges in Northeast Ohio. The other, Cuyahoga Community College, will receive about $80,000.

At Stark State, Ball estimates the new money could pay for seven or eight students to go through its program. While he doesn’t work in admissions, he said he typically doesn’t hear about finances being a barrier for students trying to get their CDL at the college. The college’s two CDL tracks range in price from about $6,500 to $7,500.

There are other challenges aside from funding. The industry is overwhelmingly white and male, though Census data shows drivers under 35 are more diverse and educated than their older peers. Roughly 60% of people enrolled in Stark’s CDL offerings are nonwhite.

The idea — perhaps, even, the stereotype — of drivers spending so much time alone and away from home is another obstacle. Ball said he thinks companies are working to make the industry more appealing. There’s more talk now about team driving opportunities, chances to bring a spouse along and shorter hauls, so drivers can be home more during evenings and weekends.

Wages have gone up over time, too, yet earlier this year, some trucking companies reported boosting pay hasn’t completely alleviated shortage or turnover issues. Plus, in a booming job market, rates for opportunities not requiring training or a credential like driving also are increasing. Things are competitive.

“I do think there’s some of the thought from students, ‘Hey, these wages are high right now, I didn’t make this before, let’s make hay while the sun shines,’” Ball said.

Stark State is a two-year public college, offering a noncredit pathway to a CDL, as well as a credit program students could eventually stack with other classes for an advanced degree.

That’s not an option at for-profit trucking schools. Half of the state program’s awardees fall into that category. For-profit institutions as a whole are known for using predatory tactics and leaving students with higher amounts of loan debt.

Officials said all of the selected CDL offerings had to be qualified as eligible through the Ohio Department of Public Safety to receive money in addition to submitting an application for the program.

“We just did not want to differentiate between those who could, in whichever way they’re situated, provide support for training CDL truck drivers,” said Gardner of the Ohio Department of Higher Education.

In the future, the chancellor said there may be “some additional evaluation going on,” potentially looking at who used the funds and how they did it. A total of $5 million is set to be distributed through this state program over the next two years.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.