Driving simulators expand purpose from training to workforce development

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CDL driver simulator
Aims Community College uses a CDL simulator for training and recruitment.
Aims Community College

Parked among the bright and shiny custom cars on the floor of the CHI Health Center convention center in Omaha, Nebraska, this past week at the World of Wheels car show was a 28-foot cargo trailer featuring a truck driving simulator mounted inside.

The Nebraska Trucking Association (NTA) debuted the simulator at the Nebraska State Fair last August, using it as a tool to engage the workforce in conversations about careers in the trucking industry. The simulator then attended Nebraska’s large agricultural show Husker Harvest Days before rounding out the year hitting high schools and community colleges around the state for career fairs. NTA President and CEO Kent Grisham said the simulator reached more than 100,000 people between the state fair in August and the end of 2023, and 431 people experienced the simulator in the two and a half days it was at the car show.

Inside the trailer is a QR code that links prospective students to the NTA’s scholarship application as well as a map of Nebraska with QR codes placed at locations in the state where CDL programs are available. Though the NTA hasn’t tracked enrollment data at CDL training facilities based on the interactions with the simulator, Grisham said the simulator has been very effective in going beyond garnering interest in industry careers to actually getting students enrolled in programs.

“Our scholarship applications … have taken a dramatic increase,” he said. “We know a lot of those are generated by these public appearances because we will have a lot of potential CDL and diesel tech students hit the QR code and start their scholarship application right there.”

Though new to the NTA, simulators have long been used at larger trucking companies as training tools for their drivers, but in recent years, their use has begun to expand beyond training to workforce development.

Werner (CCJ Top 250, No. 13), for example, began integrating simulators into its training programs in the early 2000s and continues to use them today for comprehensive driver training, mandating all CDL-A drivers undergo simulation training biannually. New hires also complete simulator training as part of their orientation.

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The company conducts nearly 30,000 hours of simulation training fleet wide every year. Werner Director of Safety Adam Cassidy said the investment in simulation technology has contributed significantly to safety outcomes, with 2023 marking a 19-year low in DOT reportable events and a record low in injuries, and drivers have taken note.

“The driver response to simulation training within our operations has been overwhelmingly positive, reflecting a deep appreciation for the technology's role in enhancing their skills and safety awareness,” Cassidy said. “This training is now a cornerstone of our company's culture, with drivers not only expecting it as an integral part of their annual routine but also valuing its contribution to their professional development and safety on the road. The positive reception underscores the effectiveness of simulation training in building confidence and competence.”

That’s a benefit Aims Community College in Colorado has also experienced among its CDL students that use the school’s new simulator. Aims’ CDL program invested $100,000 in an L3Harris Driving Training system last fall to provide hands-on experience for drivers before they get behind the wheel of a semi-truck.

The L3Harris allows students to experience what it’s like driving a semi in rural and urban settings and also allows instructors to introduce real-world scenarios like extreme weather, defensive driving or road hazards without the risk to people or equipment.

“Our student body appreciates and loves that these resources are available to them,” said Aims CDL Program Director Martin Rubalcaba. “If we can get the drivers used to the feel of a truck and then get them more road time, it's always a win for them. It's a safe training environment for a student. They can get the behind-the-wheel experience without having to get behind the wheel of an actual truck. The students like to get that nervousness out of their system before they hit the road.”

Whereas the NTA primarily uses its simulator as a workforce development tool, and Werner primarily uses theirs for training, Aims uses its simulator for both. And more industry associations and community colleges are deploying them as they see the widespread benefits: from faster training and improved safety to recruitment, especially of younger generations.

Like NTA, Aims’ simulator is housed in a mobile trailer that can be taken to events to offer prospective industry workforce a taste of life behind the wheel. Rubalcaba, who has taken the simulator to high schools, at-risk youth groups, refugee community centers and public events, compared it to a video game, which helps make the career more attractive to younger generations.

“One of the highlights of the simulator is that we've seen a big uptick in the younger demographic of 18- to 25-year-olds,” he said. “They made up about 40% of our classes in the last two class sessions. I don't know if it's due to the simulator, but if it's a good selling point. They like it and are excited about it.”

Grisham said NTA is also targeting a younger audience as well as varying demographics.

“We want to see high school through young 20-somethings because that's really what the industry needs is an infusion of youth,” he said.

Beyond training and recruitment, Rubalcaba said the simulators also have the benefit of garnering respect and understanding for the profession, sharing the road with big rigs and the industry overall.

“We like to have people jump in there – show them what it's like to drive a large truck,” he said. "One big shift we've noticed when taking this simulator to career fairs is from teachers and counselors. Some of them come in thinking driving is a dangerous and underpaid career. After having them drive and showing most can learn very fast, they leave astonished at how anyone can learn to drive a truck. What seals the deal is when I tell them what our graduates earn right out of school."

Angel Coker Jones is a senior editor of Commercial Carrier Journal, covering the technology, safety and business segments. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and kayaking, horseback riding, foraging for medicinal plants and napping. She also enjoys traveling to new places to try local food, beer and wine. Reach her at [email protected].