Southwest Truck Driver Training President Sean Williams’ admits he got a foot in the family business because his dad ran the company. But the road to the top was far from cushy.
He worked summers washing trucks. At 21, he did every small task that came with an entry-level position. Two years later, Williams was asked to become the director of one of the school’s campuses to fill an unexpected vacancy. It was his first big test, and his performance cemented his place in the company his late father, Gary Williams, started in 1999.
“I was told to step up,” said Williams, who rose to vice president of operations six years later. “I got my job through nepotism, but kept it through hard work.”
The typical student
Williams, who became president in 2013, showed diligence under his father’s leadership and would prove to be a vital part of Southwest’s growth over the years. What started as a single location in Tucson now has grown to three, with another in Las Vegas and the headquarters in Phoenix.
In its first year, it served 160 students in Tucson, Williams said. In 2015, more than 1,400 students completed the program. Those profits also nearly doubled what it generated in 2013, which had previously been the company’s most profitable year.
The business connects the small family business to a large industry responsible for making commerce possible on a daily basis. In 2015, trucking revenues topped $700 billion for the second consecutive year, coming in at $726 billion and moving more than 10 billion tons of freight, according to the American Trucking Association. However, ATA data also shows that the trucking industry faced a driver shortage of roughly 25,000. This is where Williams and his team play their part.
The typical student, Williams said, is someone who lost a job to downsizing or outsourcing and is looking to fill an employment gap until something permanent comes along. Students also tend to be looking for a new career or is fresh from military service. Williams’ brother Travis, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, is the school’s director for veterans affairs and also coordinates outreach programs to help homeless and disabled vets.
The youngest student was 18, and the oldest completed the program five years ago at age 82. Anyone who can pass the physical exam and complete the education can get a commercial drivers license, Williams said.
The average starting annual salary for a driver is $40,000, Williams added. Women drivers can command $70,000 to $80,000 after a year on the road. Women trainers at a company can be paired with a novice woman driver to show her the ropes and spend days and nights on the road more easily than pairing men and women. Also, trainers get paid for every mile the truck moves, whether they are driving or not, and receive bonuses when their trainees upgrade.
Southwest’s program takes one month to complete. Tuition is $4,500 and financial aid is available.
Hands-on teaching model
Williams’ father, Gary, had worked for another truck driving school in the Valley and thought he could do it better. Shortening a drawn-out program down to a month was part of his business model.
Out of respect for his former employer, Gary chose Tucson as the original location so he wasn’t in direct competition. A year later, he moved the headquarters to Phoenix while keeping the Tucson campus open. In 2006, the Las Vegas campus opened.
Putting students on a faster track to obtaining their CDL has come in handy for those who find themselves in a financial pinch due to circumstances beyond their control.
“Sometimes, we’re just that Band-aid until they can get a new job.” Williams said. “Or maybe they’ll fall in love with the trucking industry. We’ve helped people be able to feed their families and save their homes from foreclosure.”
After enduring jobs that didn’t generate adequate income to care for his family, Scott Shocklee was able to change that after graduating from Southwest in 2015. Shocklee had friends who drove trucks, and research led him to the school.
Southwest secured a job for Shocklee before he graduated, he said.
“They are hands-on and the way they talk to you and go about explaining things… everyone was great,” said Shocklee, who lives in Peoria and supports his wife, three children and a grandson.
Shocklee remains with the same company who hired him while in school and has been a trainer for seven months. Word of his expertise has made the rounds, as other trucking companies often call him to join their team, he said.
“Southwest deserves credit for 90 percent (of the reason other companies call him),” Shocklee said. “I still call them and they ask how I’m doing and they’re happy to hear I’m doing well.”
Company motto: Treating students like family
Raised in Peoria, Williams earned a degree in criminal justice from Northern Arizona University. He planned on going into law enforcement, but decided to give the family business a full-time try. His first day on the job came four days after graduation. As he took on more of a leadership role, Williams wasn’t satisfied with hands-on experience. He went on to earn his MBA from Western International University while working.
“I was in a management role, so I thought I’d better learn how to do it,” Williams said. “My dad was a school-of-hard-knocks guy. I was always an academic.”
“The secret sauce is treating students like they’re part of the family” Williams said. “If a student as a problem, we’ll all stop our menial tasks and focus on helping the student.”
“To me, it’s not very complicated,” he added. “My dad always said that we never make decisions based on money… always make decisions based on right and wrong. Do that and the money stuff solves itself.”
Williams talked about a former student – a triathlete who had owned a construction business before he was hit by a car that put him in a coma. A series of events resulting from the accident left him homeless. Williams found him sleeping at a desk in one of the campus classrooms.
Southwest worked out a financial arrangement that allowed him to complete the program. Six months later, the man returned to visit Williams. He was dressed in clean clothes, had a big truck that he was leasing and owned his own business.
“We gave him his pride back. His life back. We were able to give him a boost,” Williams said. He paused for a few seconds. “Stories like that damn near bring me to tears sometimes.”
Southwest Truck Driver Training
Where: 2323 S. 51st Ave. Phoenix
Interesting stat: Nearly 70 percent of all the freight tonnage moved in the U.S. goes on trucks, weighing in at about 9.2 billion tons of freight annually, requiring more than 3 million truck drivers, according to the American Trucking Association.
Details: 602-352-0704, swtdt.com.