Pacific NW program developing a diverse pool of transport candidates

An Oregon program is tackling driver shortages by extending training to people who might otherwise struggle to become garbage collectors and garbage collectors. | M2020/Shutterstock

Carriers are struggling to hire enough garbage and recycling drivers even as they work to increase diversity in the ranks. Meanwhile, many low-income and homeless people — including those with criminal histories and little formal education — have only dreamed of such a stable, well-paying job.

One Oregon program called Driving Diversity in Portland centers on the obvious solution: training people struggling to enter careers to become garbage collectors and scavengers, with a focus on women and people of color.

“It’s the most direct and clear way to provide qualified candidates for transportation jobs and create opportunity for the people we serve,” said Patrick Gihring of nonprofit group Worksystems. “And that’s the clearest path for them to establish a skilled and diverse workforce in transportation work.”

Gihring was one of four speakers who spoke about the program during a June 2 webinar from the Association of Oregon Recyclers (AOR). The Driving Diversity program was initiated a year ago by the Portland Haulers Association and Worksystems, which helps train and prepare residents for careers, in an effort to meet the staffing needs of regional businesses.

The workforce training program, currently serving its fifth class of students, has proven to be a strong model for developing candidates for transportation jobs. It comes at a key time, with labor shortages forcing some curbside collection programs across the country to reduce service and miss collection days.

Diversity Studies Lead to Workforce Education

The idea for the Driving Diversity program came from Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) assessments conducted at select member companies of the Portland Haulers Association (PHA). About three years ago, PHA hired Johnell Bell and his consulting firm, Epousal Strategies, to conduct the assessments, which included identifying barriers to hiring at waste and recycling companies.

One such PHA member was Arrow Sanitary, which is owned by Waste Connections. Josh Brown, district manager for Arrow Sanitary, told the webinar that his company is looking to diversify its workforce, being part of an industry that has consisted mostly of white men. Bell, founder and CEO of Espousal Strategies, came to help the company develop a diversity and inclusion plan.

“Honestly, before the last few years, it just wasn’t a priority for our industry,” Brown noted.

Bell connected PHA with Gihring at Worksystems, and the parties developed the industry-specific training program, which was funded by American Rescue Plan Act money flowing through the city of Portland. PHA also invests in training, and significant in-kind donations have been provided by partners.

The Interstate Trucking Academy, the only African-American owned truck driving school in Oregon, provides the training. Gary Hollands, co-director of the Interstate Trucking Academy, told webinar viewers that the Driving Diversity program, which aims to bring women and minorities into the transportation industry, spans a standard five- to eight weeks to obtain a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).

Instead, each quarter, applicants complete a free 12-week program to train as garbage and recycling pickers. “Our goal is to give them a full and in-depth dive into the recycling and waste industry,” Hollands said.

The course, which begins at 5 a.m. each day to give students a taste of real collectors’ working hours, covers driving from a right-side seat, truck fires, operating automated arms for emptying curbside carts, interacting with customers (especially young children) and more.

The course also involves carriers shadowing the job, Hollands said, which helps them get a sense of not only job responsibilities, but also the day-to-day work culture in a male-dominated industry. The program prioritizes the acceptance of women and people of color.

Graduates have the opportunity to work in one of PHA’s member companies, which includes the following mix of local service providers and large companies: Arrow Sanitary Service, City Sanitary Service, Elmer’s Sanitary Service, Gruetter’s Sanitary Service, Heiberg Garbage & Recycling, Portland Disposal & Recycling, Republic Services, Sunset Garbage Service, Wacker Sanitary Service, Walker Garbage Services and Waste Management.

Josh Brown of Arrow Sanitary/Waste Connections, Patrick Gihring of Worksystems, Johnell Bell of Epousal Strategies, and Gary Hollands of Interstate Trucking Academy spoke at the Driving Diversity webinar (clockwise from top corner left).

A dream for some, a good job for others

The program has solved problems for businesses and individuals.

Brown of Arrow Sanitary acknowledged the difficulty of recruiting for garbage and recycling truck driver jobs.

“Quite frankly, the garbage business has been very difficult to recruit and bring people into the industry,” Brown said. “There aren’t many people who grow up…other than when you’re a kid…thinking, ‘Hey, I want to be a garbage collector for the rest of my life.'”

That being said, the positions are paid jobs in a stable industry, he noted.

Gihring said Worksystems’ customers are low-income people who want a career but need help. He noted that the program provides childcare and rental assistance to Driving Diversity students, so they don’t have to drop out to address life issues.

Gihring pointed out that the average cost of child care in the Portland area is $2,000 per month. “It creates a barrier that prevents them from accessing paid employment because they don’t have paid employment,” he said.

The program pays for childcare for about a year after training begins, giving them time to land a job and start taking their paychecks home so they can support themselves, a he declared.

Driving Diversity also pays for rental housing costs for students, some of whom are homeless and/or have no income. “It just takes away that pressure of ‘I need to get a job urgently. I can’t get this training,'” he said.

Gihring estimates that 40 to 50 students have graduated in the past year and counting, of which about 60 to 70 percent have landed jobs at PHA member companies.

“There were quite a few people who said it was the thing they dreamed of, the thing they wanted to do,” he said, “and there are people who didn’t. never thought, but it turned out to be a good match.”

The program has examples of formerly homeless people who, after being hired, could afford a nice place to live and a few cars, Gihring said. Hollands noted that her biggest benefit with the program is “the appreciation our students get when they get these jobs.”

Improve and expand the program

Webinar speakers said they continue to expand and improve the Driving Diversity program. Gihring said attendees would like to “adjust the size” of recruitment to better match the number of jobs available to PHA members, with a goal of at least 75% of graduates hired.

“We don’t want to waste anyone’s time,” he said. “We don’t want to create expectations that we can’t meet in terms of… vacancies within the industry.”

Additionally, relatively few immigrants enter the Driving Diversity program, with some immigrant communities being stigmatized for handling trash. This is a challenge that the partners of the program would like to take up.

Brown said Arrow Sanitary learned that it had to adjust its HR manuals and hiring practices related to background checks to onboard some program graduates. His company has also waived requirements for prior driving experience, he said, noting that Waste Connections is self-insured, so its requirements may be different from insurance policies held by d. other carriers.

Brown also acknowledged that program graduates need more on-the-job training — 8 to 10 weeks — than other recruits. In addition to helping his company’s operations, the program has helped him achieve broader workforce diversity goals by local and regional governments, he said.

Hollands noted that the partners are looking to expand the program to other communities near Portland and other parts of Oregon — potentially tapping into state money, like Future Ready Oregon Financing – for wider expansion.

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