When Alex Douthit started the ball rolling for a commercial driving instruction school in Kenai, he had no idea what he was getting into.
The concept seemed simple enough. A former oil industry support worker and CDL instructor and driver himself, Douthit said he heard from a number of people how great it would be to have an instruction school on the peninsula. Without one, people on the Kenai Peninsula who wanted to get a CDL typically went to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley or out of state.
It was easy enough to set up the school from a business perspective. Douthit went to the Kenai Peninsula Small Business Development Center for advising and set up a business strategy, and rented a small space in the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District’s building in north Kenai to get started.
But almost as soon as he started applying for permits to set up the school in November 2016, he started running into snags.
“It was a long, slow process,” he said. “Every time we turned around there was another hurdle we had to overcome. It was very stressful, to say the least.”
First, it became very apparently that no one had set up a new CDL school in a long time. When he called the Alaska Department of Administration’s Division of Motor Vehicles, no one there had actually processed the paperwork for a new school in their time with the state, he said. So they started in on the paperwork and hit another snag — the state requires certification by a nonprofit industry association called the Professional Truck Driver Institute to start up.
However, when Douthit called the organization, he was told they didn’t accredit schools that had not been in operation for at least a year.
“It is literally a paradox,” he said.
With help from Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District Executive Director Tim Dillon, he started trying to untangle the process with the state. They found out that unlike licenses for alcohol or marijuana businesses, there is no board for businesses licensed by the Division of Motor Vehicles, Douthit said.
They made a lot of phone calls. Dillon said he put in calls to a variety of different state offices, including Gov. Bill Walker and the peninsula’s legislators, and Douthit said he called the state ombudsman’s office. Eventually, the school’s Division of Motor Vehicles license arrived in the mail.
But it wasn’t the last snag. At the last minute, they found out that because the CDL license instruction lasted more than 120 hours — a requirement from the Professional Truck Driver Institute, whose accreditation was required by the state — they had to get approval from the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education. When Douthit called the Division of Motor Vehicles to ask about the commission, no one knew it existed, he said.
“I’ve talked to so many people who were trying to do this very same thing … and they all said, ‘Oh, it all just got so complicated, I couldn’t do it. I’m hitting road blocks,’” he said. “I guess I was just too stubborn to give up.”
So they started tracking down information again. The commission, an arm of the Alaska Student Loan Corporation, exists primarily as a vetting board to protect consumers from potentially predatory educational organizations. Douthit said they eventually found out the board actually meets, and Dillon found out there was an opportunity for public testimony. So they went and testified at the Jan. 9 meeting to support Douthit’s application.
Dillon said that’s a big part of his role at the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District — making sure businesses have the support they need to get started.
“We were able to make sure that the right questions were asked, even down to little things like that last step with the last certification,” Dillon said. “I knew during a board or commission unless during an executive session, those were open to the public.”
It’s been a frustrating process but with licenses in hand, Douthit said Kenai Peninsula Driving Instruction is open for business and now working with students on their CDL classes. For the last year, they’ve been filling in space with basic class D driving instruction, but now they’re focusing on the CDL students. He, his wife Sarah, and instructor Michael Standefer are the only current staff.
To help accommodate students’ schedules, they work one-on-one with them rather than in groups or classes, Douthit said. Often, the people seeking CDL certification are already employed, so the school can work around their work schedule to make it easier for everyone. Having a local training school will save money for employers in housing and travel, too he said.
Despite the downturn in oil and gas development, Douthit said he wasn’t worried about a downturn in demand for CDL certifications. As the oil industry and support companies have tightened their belts, more workers are looking for additional certifications beyond their basic skill sets because it makes them more qualified to apply for more jobs, he said. The potential for the Alaska LNG Project to bring an 800-acre natural gas liquefaction to Nikiski would also increase demand for CDL-certified drivers, he said.
“It’s become a prerequisite for a lot of companies,” he said. “Almost every time you go to apply online, (people) tell me, ‘I can’t apply for three-quarters of the jobs out there because they’re all requiring CDLs.’”
Dillon said since he took over at the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District in July 2016, more people have been dropping by to ask for advice on their businesses.
“If we don’t have the answers, I’ll pick up the phone and get them for you,” he said. ”… Two years ago, I didn’t realize we’d be viewed as a resource for people. That feels really good.”