Persistent unemployment amid pandemic leads to unlikely career change for many

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated families and taken the lives of loved ones for nine months, and along the way, there has been job loss, leaving many to search for new careers. A Mid-South trucking school says they’re seeing a huge influx of people taking their classes.

There is already a need for skilled truck drivers as more people stay home and shop online, according to Brad Ball, president of Roadmaster, Inc., a trucking school with multiple locations all over the country.

Factor in high unemployment, and Ball said they’re having to open more schools to keep up with enrollment.

“We have probably about 30 to 40 percent more people trying to get in our courses,” said Ball.

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For Jarred Phillips, who was close to finishing the coursework at Roadmaster in northern Shelby County, his journey started months earlier when the restaurant he was working at closed its doors due to the pandemic.

That was in spring.

Months later, he finds himself at Roadmaster about to earn his commercial driver’s license, which would enable him to drive semi-trucks with cargo.

“On top of being tired and it being terrible in this climate, I’m ready for this,” Phillips said, taking a break from practicing his skills on the school’s property.

Phillips and other students said the opportunity gives them a chance to make quick money amid stubborn unemployment rates that have persisted most of the year.

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Unemployment in Tennessee ticked up from September to October to 7.4 percent from 6.5 percent, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

In Memphis, unemployment was at 10.7 percent in May and now is just slightly lower at 9.7 percent.

“I haven’t event completed the three weeks [of coursework] and I’ve already got five job offers,” said Carlus Brown, 40.

With increases in retail and online spending as people shop online, the need for skilled drivers to move merchandise is high.

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“Everything moves by truck, and therefore, a lot of truck drivers are needed,” said Ball.

Phillips said trucking was “something I held in the back of my mind that I figured I could fall on it.”

“…[F]eeling pretty hopeful,” he said of his future. It’s nice to have something like a career that I can pursue.”

Ball said he foresees the need for truckers to persist over the next decade.

As for paying for school, there are arrangements that can be made to help out, Ball said.

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