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Reading Eagle (KRTBN)

Pennsylvania Latinos Flock To Truck Driving

By Merav Bushlin, Reading Eagle, Pa.

January 6, 2004
Copyright ©2004 KRTBN Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. All rights reserved.

Jan. 6--More than a year has passed since Hermenejildo Tinoco lost his job when the Ames Distribution Center closed in Ontelaunee Township.

Speaking poor English, the native of Mexico failed to find work anywhere but on local mushroom farms, and he refused to spend his days on his knees picking mushrooms.

"I wanted a different kind of job," said Tinoco, 53, a husband and father of three.

Tinoco said he found a solution when he enrolled in truck-driving school this fall.

"I like to drive, and I can look for a better salary, too," he said.

The number of Latinos entering the trucking industry in Berks County has increased drastically in the past year or two, according to officials at local truck-driving schools.

But schools seeking to translate interest into enrollment faced a major obstacle: language.

Recognizing a mutually beneficial opportunity, local schools recently hired bilingual instructors and established programs to lure Spanish-speaking students to enroll.

Outreach works, school officials discovered.

By bridging the language gap, the AAA School of Trucking in West Reading more than quadrupled its enrollment of Latino students, said Jose M. Sobrino, director of the school's Hispanic Program.

The school, which is not affiliated with AAA, the automobile club, takes its name from Academics, Achievement and Advancement. Based in Harrisburg, it teaches students to drive tractor-trailers or Class B trucks.

Since the West Reading school established a bilingual program about four months ago, Latinos have been the majority of the school's approximately 30 students, he added.

About one year ago numerous Spanish-speaking people also began calling the Don Sheetz Inc. Commercial Driver's License Training program in Blandon, said Diane Ritzman, business manager for the company.

The callers asked if the program had a bilingual instructor, and when they learned that it did not, they didn't enroll, Ritzman said.

So the school advertised for an instructor to accommodate them, she said.

The Sheetz school hired a bilingual instructor about five months ago, and now two of its six students are Latino, Ritzman said.

The Berks Career and Technology Center Truck Driving program also has a Spanish-speaking instructor, said Gary S. Fedorcha, director of the commercial driver's license program in Berks and surrounding counties.

Unless they are accompanied by an interpreter, applicants for a Pennsylvania commercial driver's license need basic English for the verbal-knowledge and driving portion of the exam.

Most Latino students have a grasp of English basics, but a Spanish-speaking instructor explains difficult concepts in students' native language, Sobrino said.

Ideally, a Latino immigrant would learn English as soon as he came to the United States, but he likely must deal first with the demands of bills and hungry children, said Jonathan Encarnacion, executive director of the Daniel Torres Hispanic Center in Reading.

"The issue of getting that person trained and to a job is critical," Encarnacion said, explaining that the Hispanic Center may form a partnership with AAA School for a vocational program. "Then you can address the issue of continuing to learn the language."

The average truck driver earns $42,500 a year, according to a 2003 study by the American Trucking Association.

And the trucking industry needs workers to fill available jobs in the United States, Sobrino said.

Tinoco got a job about 2 1/2 weeks after he graduated from his AAA class in October.

He earns $12 an hour as a truck driver for Asplundh Tree Experts in Willow Grove, according to Kara Barrett, AAA School director, who tracks graduates' progress.

Truck driving is difficult work, said Daniel Morales, an AAA School student, but it is reliable employment.

"Sometimes you have to sacrifice something," said Morales, 33, of Reading, who worked for a telephone company in Puerto Rico. Since moving to Reading two years ago, he worked at Sweet Street Desserts until he was laid off in April.

He applied at East Penn Manufacturing Co. near Lyons and sent a resume to Comcast, but didn't have any luck in finding work, he said.

"They're looking for drivers," he said of the trucking industry. "There's a lot of demand. Nobody said it's easy."

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