By Cindy Hadish

CEDAR RAPIDS – Sitting behind the steering wheel of a big rig offers a different perspective than sitting behind a desk at the office.

For a day, workers in TrueNorth Companies’ transportation division experienced both.

“We’re fortunate to be able to sit in a professional work environment every day and go home to our families at the end of the day,” said Jason Smith, TrueNorth’s executive vice president of transportation.

Mr. Smith wanted employees in his division to go beyond the office to better understand what clients of the Cedar Rapids-based risk management and insurance brokerage firm experience. Many of those customers are truck drivers who spend 10 hours a day on the road and do not have the luxury of sleeping in their own beds every night, he said.

Cedar Rapids-based CRST, Schneider National of Green Bay, Wis., and Old Dominion Freight Line of North Carolina are among the company’s clients.

TrueNorth teamed with Kirkwood Community College’s commercial driving program to offer about 50 of its transportation employees the chance to experience a day in the life of a truck driver.

Workers rode along with Kirkwood driving instructors in semi-trailer trucks on the highway; tried their hands at a driving simulator and even backed up trucks in Kirkwood’s training lot.

“How many times do you get to sit behind the wheel of a big rig, let alone drive it,” said Chris Gulker, a TrueNorth benefits advisor.

Mr. Gulker, who has worked for TrueNorth for eight months, said his only previous truck-driving experience was with a trailer about one-fifth the size of the 70-foot-long semi.

“I would say I did all right,” Mr. Gulker said, after disembarking from the cab of a semi, though he wasn’t sure if he used all seven of the rear-view mirrors.

Paulette Milewski, program director for Kirkwood Training and Outreach Services, said Kirkwood often provides customized training to employers in the Corridor, but the driving day was a first.

“This has never been done before,” she said. “With TrueNorth, they’re always pushing the envelope to keep up the skills of their workforce.”

Fog, snow, thunderstorms, flat tires and night-driving were among the challenges the TrueNorth employees encountered during the driving simulation, along with “crashes.”

“I’d like to put everybody in a truck for a day,” said Kirkwood driving instructor, Mike Bibeau, adding that the TrueNorth employees stepped up to the challenge.

Trucks can take up to 455 feet to stop – more than a football field-and-a-half when traveling at 55 mph, Mr. Bibeau said.

“They’re big, massive pieces of machinery,” he said.

TrueNorth’s Smith said employees in his division will have a better appreciation of those challenges faced by truck drivers.

“I want them to understand the complexity a professional truck driver faces every day,” he said. “They can literally put themselves in the seat of their customer.”

Mr. Smith said he had considered the “driver for a day” concept for at least two years and worked with Kirkwood to provide the two half-day sessions on Aug. 15. He hopes to offer the training on an annual basis.

Besides bonding with his co-workers, Mr. Gulker said the experience improved his understanding of customer needs.

“I can better appreciate just what they go through on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity to just see a completely different end of what our business is.”