Instilling confidence behind the wheel

July 23, 2016

For CDL instructor Frances Thomas, it’s all about encouragement

Frances Thomas loves driving trucks. For nearly three decades, she drove all sorts of trucks for UPS, and now she’s teaching others how to safely maneuver the big rigs.

As an instructor at Johnson County Community College’s commercial driver’s license (CDL) program, Thomas prepares drivers for the test that will allow them to get the type A license – the one that assures they’re competent to control 18 wheels.

But she’s also doing a lot more. For one, she’s installing a confidence in would-be drivers by valuing encouragement.

“People succeed because they’re encouraged, not yelled at,” she said. “As long as you give respect, you get that back.”

Her voice in their heads

She’s trying to make the roads safer for all of us.

“I teach my students to be defensive drivers, of course, but I also teach them to be offensive drivers,” she said. “When they’re driving, I want my voice to be in their head, reminding them what to do and how to be safe.”

Her own inner voice, still with her to this day, is that of Ron McDonald, her own CDL trainer. “I still hear him, and I have students who call me up to say, ‘You were right; you were right there with me (in the cab). I could hear your voice guiding me.’”

Damon Arnold remembered that when he first started class, he was so nervous his leg would shake on the clutch. “But Frances would, in her calm manner, just repeat the instructions and give me encouragement and feedback…She never became impatient with me, and there was genuine caring in her teaching style that made me feel like my success was part of her success,” he said.

Helping students find jobs

Thomas is also trying to help students find a career that best suits their goals and desires.

“One of the first things I do (in class) is have the students write down what they’re wanting from the job. If everyone did that, we’d have a lot less turnover in the industry than we do now,” she said.

That turnover is current 97 percent, according to the American Trucking Associations. That means 97 of 100 drivers are not with a company for more than a year. They may move to another company, or they may leave trucking. If a parent is driving over multiple days, the time away from home can seem like too high a price to pay for regular paycheck.

“That’s why we teach them the difference between dedicated lane and brokerage,” Thomas said, explaining that a dedicated lane is a route that picks up, delivers and then returns on a regular schedule, whereas brokerage sends drivers wherever goods need to be moved.

Love of teaching and truck-driving

Thomas said she enjoys learning about her students’ lives.  She’s Facebook friends with many of them, and for her last birthday, more than 40 of them sent greetings. One student came to campus and jumped out of his big rig, just to give her a hug.

“He was just so excited with the job he got, and he wanted to thank me,” she said. “Honestly, though, I think I get back a lot more than I give. When we’re going through steps, and they get the one thing, and you see that look of accomplishment in their faces – there’s nothing like it.”

Thomas shares her own love of driving with her students. She said she loves meeting new people, seeing beautiful but unknown parts of the country and generally being surprised by what the road ahead might bring.

One such story happened in New Mexico. As she approached a rise in the road, the sky was dotted with hundreds of colorful hot-air balloons just beginning to escape the confines of the ground.

“It was incredibly beautiful,” she said. “And I was there to see it.”

She tells all her drivers to enjoy the drive – a bonus of a career currently in hot demand.

“I tell them, ‘Have fun. Look and see. There’s a whole big, wonderful world out there,’” Thomas said.

For more information on the CDL program, you may attend the next orientation, which is 2 to 3 p.m. Monday, Aug. 8. Register for the free program by calling 913-469-2323. Call that same number if you are interested in the program but cannot attend the orientation.