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CCJ Innovator: Werner creates new opportunities for military veterans 

Werner Enterprises' 'Operation Freedom' Semi-Truck

Werner

It’s no secret that military veterans are viewed as prime job candidates by the private sector. The leadership skills, respect for procedures and flexibility they learn during their military careers make them a coveted part of the U.S. workforce, particularly in trucking. Competition among fleet recruiters for these individuals increases daily as more carriers look to mitigate the driver shortage with this once-untapped market.

Throughout its 61-year history, Werner Enterprises (CCJ Top 250, No. 11) has been a pioneer in the trucking industry, adding fleet telematics as early as 1992 and electronic logging devices in 1998. In the mid-2000s, it was one of the first large carriers to actively target and recruit U.S. servicemen and women.

Werner sought a way to help provide financial stability for military veterans as they transitioned into new careers behind the wheel. In 2006, the Omaha, Neb.-based company established an industry-first professional truck driver apprenticeship program approved by the U.S. Departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs. Non-veterans who complete the program receive a certificate from the DOL as a Werner professional truck driver.

At that time under Werner’s one-year program, military veterans with post-9/11 GI Bills could apply for their education benefits during Werner’s on-the-job training. Once the individual graduated from truck driving school and became a Werner employee, they enrolled in the apprenticeship program and began receiving monthly payments directly from the VA based on eligibility tiers above and beyond their Werner pay. After a 90-day process to determine eligibility, employees received 100 percent of eligible funds in the first six months of employment, followed by 80 percent in the second six months.

In its first year, Werner’s new program began with more than 1,000 apprentices, including 117 who used GI Bill benefits.

In 2013, the VA began allowing military veterans who are Werner student drivers to attend truck driving school while still earning a stipend, using their eligible GI Bill benefits for up to $250 per month for tuition reimbursement.

Widening the net

In 2015, the VA approved Werner’s request to extend its driver apprenticeship program from 12 months to 24 months. With the new program, Werner’s military veteran employees can receive more than $24,000 in tax-free benefits over two years depending on their eligibility, in addition to their Werner pay.

Overall, Werner has enrolled more than 38,000 nonmilitary and military veterans in its driver apprenticeship program. By July 2016, 10 years after its driver apprenticeship program began, Werner had enrolled its 5,000th veteran using GI Bill benefits in the apprenticeship program.

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As the VA-backed apprenticeship program began to take off, Werner wanted to do more to expand its visibility to military veterans. In 2012, the company made a pledge to hire 1,000 veterans per year for the next five years as part of the White House’s Joining Forces campaign.

Werner also created “Operation Freedom,” a military veteran outreach platform that now includes its VA driver apprenticeship program.

One of the focuses of Operation Freedom is veteran recognition. In 2013, the company rolled out the first of eight trucks in its Operation Freedom fleet that features military tribute graphics wrapped on the tractor and trailer thanking U.S. Armed Forces personnel for their service.

The trucks and their drivers, who either are military veterans or their family members, appear at truck shows, recruiting events and veterans’ ceremonies across the country, in addition to running regular freight routes.

Tackling the tech shortage

There currently are thousands of truck technician positions open across the trucking industry. According to a 2015 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 67,000 new truck technicians will be needed by 2022 to offset attrition and projected industry growth. The BLS report also says another 75,000 diesel engine specialists also will be needed.

Recognizing the critical level of the diesel technician shortage and with its driver apprenticeship program a proven recruiting tool, Werner began work on duplicating its apprenticeship efforts in the technician arena.

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In 2015, Werner went back to work with the VA to establish another industry first. In November of that year, the company received approval from the VA to launch its diesel mechanic apprenticeship program.

“Werner is the first trucking company to have a nationally registered apprenticeship program for diesel mechanics, and we’re thrilled to lead the way,” said Derek Leathers, Werner’s president and chief executive officer, at the time of the announcement. “We hope this apprenticeship program will serve as another great opportunity for these skilled individuals to build a career in the transportation industry.”

While Werner offers a two-year driver apprenticeship program, the company’s mechanic apprenticeship program lasts 36 months for eligible veterans who have the Post 9/11 GI Bill. While training and working as a diesel mechanic with Werner, veterans can receive as much as $26,488 in tax-free education benefits in addition to their Werner pay.

Werner’s overall efforts to recruit military veterans has paid huge dividends for the company since 2006. “Werner has hired more than 25,000 military veterans and veteran spouses since its apprenticeship program began,” said Fred Thayer, director of corporate communications. “They comprise approximately 20 percent of our workforce.”

For its efforts, Werner has received numerous awards and recognitions, including multiple “Top 100 Military Friendly Employer” and “Top 50 Military Spouse Employer” awards by GI Jobs magazine, as well as the Extraordinary Employer Support Award from the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve for its support of Reserve components of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Earlier this year, Werner also was honored by the Military Officers Association of America with the 2017 Distinguished Service Award for its outstanding support of military veterans and their spouses. Since 2013, Werner has hired more than 500 veteran spouses.

“Werner strategically recruits and employs talented men and women who have served in the Armed Forces,” said Leathers. “These mission-minded individuals add a depth of quality to our workforce that is invaluable in terms of renewable skills and dedication.”

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Jeff Crissey is the Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. In his role, Crissey is responsible for maintaining the excellent print editorial product, improving online audience development and increasing CCJ readers' knowledge of business and safety-related industry issues. Crissey holds a Bachelor's Degree from Auburn University and has been a member of Randall-Reilly Publishing's editorial staff for 14 years, where his coverage of industry topics has earned numerous regional and national awards over the years.