A school bus sits in the parking lot of the University of Southeast Alaska Tech Center downtown. In the fall of 2024, a new commercial driver’s license education training program is expected to be offered at the campus. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

A school bus sits in the parking lot of the University of Southeast Alaska Tech Center downtown. In the fall of 2024, a new commercial driver’s license education training program is expected to be offered at the campus. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

UAS to establish Juneau-based CDL program amid driver shortage

New program could put driver shortage in the rear-view mirror.

Snow plow and bus drivers are exceptionally critical occupations this time of year — but they’re in short supply statewide.

A new Juneau-based program may change that.

The $1.7 trillion spending bill recently passed by Congress included $750,000 for University of Alaska Southeast to establish and operate a commercial driver’s license education training program at UAS’ Juneau campus.

According to UAS Chancellor Karen Carey, the new program will help fill the many positions for CDL-certified drivers currently vacant in Juneau and across Southeast Alaska.

“We are just really thrilled that we got it — we really need it in Southeast,” she said. “We know it’s a real need here and starting a new program is not cheap — especially a program like this.”

CDL requirements have gotten more difficult to meet recently after additional training requirements were added in February by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and paired with the nationwide worker shortage — many Alaska communities have been left without enough CDL-certified drivers to meet community demand.

[City officials “feel confident” amid plow driver shortage]

According to Katie Koester, director of the City and Borough of Juneau Engineering and Public Works Department, Juneau is no exception to this shortage. Currently, CBJ’s winter maintenance crew is down four equipment operators — a position which requires a CDL — out of its 25-person street and fleet crew and its Capital Transit bus system — which also requires a CDL — is down six drivers which has resulted in recent route suspensions.

I’m super excited,” Koester said. “There really is quite a need for CDL licenses in any Alaska communities.”

With the new program set to come to Juneau, Koester said she is interested in CBJ establishing a partnership with UAS to aid potential or current employees interested in getting their CDL for a city position. She said often city employees have to travel to the University of Alaska Anchorage for the training to obtain a CDL, which she said can be a burden for the employer and the employees.

“I think that any time we can provide that training close to home is going to be beneficial and more accessible to our employees,” she said. “We are definitely open to working with UAS to help provide a career ladder for our employees.”

[Two Capital Transit routes suspended amid driver shortage]

Carey said the next steps after the funding is allocated will be for UAS to partner with UAA — which already offers a CDL program — and begin the process of hiring instructors.

She said the bulk of the allocation will go toward hiring at least two certified instructors, along with possibly purchasing a large-scale vehicle like a semi-truck, and noted UAS does not currently own any vehicles that can be repurposed for the program. She said UAS will also be looking into other ways to procure vehicles as the program moves closer to its expected fall 20224 start date.

The program will be based at the downtown UAS Tech Center and will welcome around 10 to 12 new students in its first semester. The program will be mostly in person, but Carey said there may be opportunities for partial online participation.

Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss said the district is interested in getting involved with the new program and is always looking to develop new partnerships or provide new Career Technical Education programs opportunities to its students. The UAS Tech program is connected via skywalk to Juneau-Douglas High School:Yadaa.at Kalé campus.

“This is an exciting opportunity and we will be exploring how to connect interested students with this program,” she said.

Carey said she hopes to see this program grow beyond its initial expected capacity, noting the federal allocation is just the initial kick-off point to where UAS intends to go with this program.

“We believe this would be our initial start, and our goal right now is to get this program started so people have a place to go in Southeast,” she said.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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