A truck driving school in Prosser has expanded to Pasco to cater to its growing roster of students.
Juan Rojas Sr. expects enrollment to double or even triple after he and son Juan Jr. opened the new, primary outlet for H&R Elite Trucking Academy at 2020 Garland St., near the Lewis Street exit from Interstate 182 and Highway 12.
A lifelong driver, Rojas established the trucking school in Sunnyside in 2012 and then, shortly afterward, moved to property he bought in Prosser. Prosser is still in business. The Pasco location caters to students who live in the Tri-Cities, who represent about 70% of his students, and represents its future growth.
Elite caters chiefly young adults eager to get into a family-wage occupation, though Rojas notes he’s qualified a driver as old as 75. He anticipates continued growth as workers seek the financial security of a truck driving job.
The annual mean wage for heavy truck-trailer truck drivers in the Tri-Cities is $56,210, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In reality, wages start higher.
The American Trucking Associations said the industry was short 78,800 drivers in 2022, just shy of the record 82,000 set the year prior.
ATA puts the average pay at nearly $70,000. But locally, Walmart advertises driver jobs paying up to $110,000 a year, plus benefits, on the Indeed job site. Young adults entering their 20s are noticing the opportunity it presents.
“They’re not making that kind of money working in any kind of warehouse,” he said.
Rojas said there is a line of would-be employers waiting for students to graduate and secure commercial driver licenses.
“The ones who get out of here, I’ve got jobs lined up,” he said. “There’s a big need for truck drivers everywhere you go.”
The city of Pasco welcomed the new school, which will help meet demand for people who can operate 18-wheel vehicles presented by newcomers such as Darigold Inc., Amazon and others.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for someone to come to H&R Elite Trucking Academy, gain a skill and have the potential to make six figures your first year. These are living wage jobs, and I think that’s going to be a yet another tremendous boost to Pasco’s and the Tri-Cities economy,” said Mike Gonzalez, the city’s economic development manager.
Rojas is an unabashed romantic when it comes to over-the-road-trucking. He grew up in Texas, where his father drove trucks and regarded “home” as the spot where his spouse lived. Rojas took up the family trade in his teens and continued into his 20s, even after moving to the Northwest.
He drew satisfaction from being part of the humming network of truckers who ferry goods across the country.
“Everyone transports everything through trucks,” he said.
He didn’t consider trying anything else. But a truck driving school near his home posted a sign seeking instructors. He’d been training drivers and the sign caught his attention.
He drove past dozens or even hundreds of times before curiosity prompted him to stop in. He asked what it would take to become an instructor and was offered a job on the spot.
He was surprised, he said, how quickly he shifted from driver to instructor. As an instructor, he discovered a love of sharing his knowledge.
He taught for the school for about two years, then began thinking about starting one of his own. It was a daunting prospect, he recalled.
“I thought about opening my own business many, many times. I was scared,” he said.
Well-meaning friends and family asked him “what if” something didn’t work out. But he found himself pushing back against the negatives.
“I’ll never know ‘what if’ if I don’t try it,” he recalled thinking. He spent 2010-11 investigating the requirements for truck driving schools. In 2012, he was ready to go.
“I will never know if I didn’t try it. I decided to go for it,” he said
He launched in Sunnyside with $8,000 in savings, a truck and trailer leased from one friend and a yard borrowed from another.
He advertised on local radio and reports it attracted a wave of students.
“From that moment, it was on,” he said, adding that Elite students come from all backgrounds, but being fluent in English as well as Spanish helps.
Revenue grew, first $60,000, then $140,000, then $240,000, $350,000 and now about $650,000.
Today, he owns six trucks, six trailers and owns his own property, including the massive yards where trainee drivers practice backing up their big rigs.
He expects business to keep growing. Elite trains 10 to 12 students at a time. Its basic program is a four-week course that meets from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and offers classroom and on-the-road instruction. The state requires at least 160 hours of training. Rojas said he keeps training students as long as it takes to qualify for a commercial license.
Elite offers different programs for Class A, B, hazmat and forklift drivers.
Students must be at least 18 years old and able to legally work in the U.S.
Tuition for the Class A course is $4,800.
He employs four instructors. Juan Jr. will eventually take over.
Juan Jr. said he embraced truck driving after his original plans were upended by the pandemic.
He was attending Columbia Basin College to become a registered nurse when the pandemic struck. He left school and joined the family business, though he did not intend to become a driver. It grew on him and today he has a CDL.
His father said he relishes the life of an entrepreneur almost as much as driving, an occupation that rewards hard work with a decent paycheck.
He sometimes misses the romance of the open road and said he sometimes imagines driving a monthly route to California or Texas.
“But I’m not getting any younger,” he said.
H&R Elite Trucking Academy: 509-882-0848 (bilingual), hrelitetruckingacademy.com.