A new source of drivers?

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U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, seen here in a 2000 photo, supports commercial driver training for Native Americans. Campbell, who still holds a CDL, worked his way through college and graduate school driving a truck.

Legislation that would authorize federal funding to provide commercial vehicle driving training to Native Americans has been reintroduced in Congress. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) first proposed the idea in 2001, and the Senate passed it last year. Now Campbell is sponsoring it again as part of a bill (S. 281) that also provides for road construction on Indian reservations. Campbell, who is Native American, holds a commercial driver’s license and has worked as a truck driver.

According to the committee report on the earlier legislation, the jobless rate in Native American communities is about 50 percent, and some Indian economies suffer jobless rates near 80 percent. The legislation focuses on driver training because the demand for skilled truck drivers exceeds the supply.

S. 281 authorizes the Department of Labor to offer grants to tribal colleges or universities to provide CDL training. Priority would go to grant applications that propose training that exceeds the Department of Transportation’s minimum standards for training tractor-trailer drivers and the entry-level truck driver certification standards set by the Professional Truck Driver Institute. Priority also would go to colleges or universities that propose an education partnership with a private trucking firm, trucking association or another entity. A few tribally controlled community colleges, including D-Q University near Sacramento, Calif., and Fort Peck Community College in Poplar, Mont., offer commercial vehicle driving programs.

In a hearing last year, James Shanley, president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and of Fort Peck Community College, said one of the reasons only a few tribal colleges offer commercial driver training is the prohibitive startup costs in equipment acquisition and maintenance. Another major problem is attracting qualified instructors, Shanley said.

At the same hearing, a representative of the American Trucking Associations endorsed the legislation. The bill also received support from Andra Rush, president of Detroit-based Rush Trucking Corp. and president of the Native American Business Alliance.