Teaching them right

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I saw a lack of skills increasing among all the drivers I met – drivers that could not back into a loading dock, who couldn’t shift well. And I thought, ‘They are just not getting good preparation.’ That’s when I realized I needed to do something about it.” –Richard Milam, owner and chief instructor, RoadRunner Driving Academy LLC, Sharon, TN

I’d heard about Richard Milam and his unique approach to teaching people to become truck driver for a while, and finally got to meet him in person at the Mid America Trucking Show last week. He’s not at all what I expected.

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A former driver himself with 23 years of experience on the road, Milam is trying to systematically dismantle how truck drivers are typically schooled before being turned loose on the road.

He breaks his philosophy down into four critical points – some that many in the industry should agree with whole heartedly, with others leaving more than a few perplexed I suspect.

His first and most important rule of thumb: Be safety oriented, right off the bat. “Safety, safety, safety: I drum that into my student’s heads right from the get-go,” he explained to me in his slow Tennessee drawl. “There is absolutely no substitute for safety when you are pulling heavy loads on roads in all kinds of poor conditions.”

Milam’s second rule: Be neat in appearance. “People form impressions of you based on how you look,” he explained. “It may not be right, but that’s what happens. So I tell students they need to be clean and dressed neatly. Truck driving is a serious profession; you need to dress and act appropriately to reflect that.”

This is no joke to Milam: He lives it every day. When he drove for a living, he always carried an iron in his cab to make sure his clothes were crisp and creased to perfection – and he continues to live that maxim every day as an instructor.

The third rule on Milam’s list might surprise some people: Drivers must maintain a good attitude. “You must have a positive attitude, because attitude is 90% of anything you do in life,” he told me. “If you’ve got a foul mouth, if you sit around and complain while sitting at the dock and then complain while you’re under load, you’re going to hate your profession and not do a good job.”

And that locks firmly into Milam’s fourth and most important rule: Have fun. “You’ve got to enjoy driving a truck,” he explained. “Yes, it’s a business, but you are going to be in that truck 11 to 14 hours a day working. You’ve got to love what you do or it’s not worth doing.”

He also encourages students to have hobbies outside of trucking – hobbies they can focus on when they are on the road and not under load. “One of my students became a geologist – actually collecting and analyzing stones he found in the gravel parking lots he loaded and unload in,” Milam said.

[Milam talks about his four rules and why they are improtant in the clip below.]

Milam got started in trucking for that very reason – he wanted to have fun. Graduating from college in 1985 with a degree in electronics, he realized there was no way in creation he could work behind a desk for the rest of his life. “I didn’t want to be in one spot; I wanted to see America,” he told me. “So when an opportunity arose to drive a truck for a living, I took it.”

He spent the first five years of his career running LTL loads from Tennessee to New York City and back. Then he got hooked up with his “dream job” hauling trade show exhibits for Murray brand lawn care products all over the country – loads worth upwards of $50 million. As part of that truck driving job, he helped run the trade show exhibit, running equipment demonstrations in the booth – an experience he credits with helping him polish his abilities as a public speaker and teacher.

But when competitor Briggs & Stratton bought Murray in 2006, Milam found himself out of a job – a victim, he said, of corporate downsizing. Yet that also provided him the opportunity to open a truck driving school and become a teacher. After plowing through all the paperwork required by Tennessee to establish a vocational school, Milam opened the doors to the RoadRunner Driving Academy in July 2007 and quickly got to work.

With four Freightliner Century class trucks equipped with 10-speed transmissions, Milam and one other full-time instructor have trained 130 truck drivers to date – and his school has been so successful he’s planning to open another location in Jackson, TN, on Aug. 1 with two extra training trucks.

Despite stressing the need to make driving a truck “fun,” Milam puts his students through some serious paces. The first week is spent solely in the classroom, boning up on a plethora or trucking knowledge – only getting into the trucks for a brief hour or two on Friday. “That whet’s their appetite so they are eager to get back in on Monday,” he explains.

He builds up each student’s truck time quickly until they are in the vehicles 10 hours a day. He starts out slowly, making each student spend their first full day doing nothing but backing up and pulling forward. “That’s the toughest thing to do and we make sure it gets into their bones how to do it,” he said.

After several weeks of on-the-road training, Milam takes them through ‘The Gauntlet’ as he calls it. “I’ve set up a route with a lot of really tough driving – tight curves, steep grades, etc. – and if I think they’re ready I take them through it. Only, I don’t tell them it’s ‘The Gauntlet.’ Only afterwards do I explain to them what they’ve accomplished.”

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All of the on-the-road training is complimented by class work, but not just on trucking rules and regulations. Experts come in to teach the students how to pick the right trucking company for their individual tastes, how to calculate good freight rates, budgeting, etc. – all the skills any driver will need to make a good living behind the wheel. “It’s the ‘building block’ approach – we keep adding layers of knowledge as we go along,” Milam said.

Yet none of it is taught “military style” Milam stressed to me. He tries to get is students to relax behind the wheel, as he feels you retain what you learn better the more relaxed you are. Lunch usually is grilled outside, picnic style, with Milam relating stories from his trucking past. “The stories are important, as they impart lessons,” he said.

For example, he related a time he got trapped in a blizzard for several days on the road in snow up to his knees. “If I hadn’t had food in my truck, I would’ve been in trouble,” he said. “But that’s the point. I carried food with me, as well as blankets and other gear. That’s the lesson they should take away from that story.”

Another example reinforces how his students should view their careers. One company he worked with part time before his school fully opened had trouble finding someone to haul a load into Canada over the Ambassador Bridge. The other drivers rejected it as they believed it required too much work and wait time. Milam leapt at the chance. “They’ve got the best chocolate in the world on the other side of that bridge,” he explained. “Sometimes, that’s how you have to approach your work as a driver, trying to find the good in what can be a very demanding profession.”

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