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Program trains young garbage collectors amid shortage in U.S.

OAKLAND, Calif. — Like most little boys, Corey Lever liked trucks and his favorite was always the garbage truck.

He loved to watch it roar down his Oakland street, grabbing the cans and dumping the trash into its rear compartment.

After graduating from high school, he bounced between jobs, working for various large companies and attending community college, but nothing was a good fit for the energetic, outdoors-loving guy. He tried to become a garbage collector on his own but didn’t get hired.

Then he heard about a new partnership between Waste Management of Alameda County Inc., Oakland Civicorps and unions that gives young adults — often high school dropouts from low-income communities — a chance to become teamster drivers after two years of training.

“It’s the only city garbage franchise agreement in the country to include a nonprofit job training program,” said Civicorps Executive Director Alan Lessik.

The job-training program comes at a good time for an industry struggling to find drivers.

The American Trucking Association says a shortage of qualified applicants with a commercial driver’s license has more than doubled since 2011. Its latest annual report says the nation was short roughly 48,000 drivers last year, with projections of a higher shortage in years to come.

The shortfall has become more apparent as the economy picks up, said Barry Skolnick, Waste Management’s area vice president for Northern California and Nevada.

“If commercial construction picks up, there are more houses, and (when) routes get bigger, we need to hire more drivers,” he said. “It’s really being driven by the economy. It’s a great job with great benefits.”

Apprentices work full time collecting organics from commercial businesses in Oakland.

Last year, Civicorps created six apprenticeships in partnership with Waste Management that can lead to lucrative jobs with the teamsters and unions as well as non-union administrative jobs.

Truck driver apprentices earn $20 an hour, and after two years they are eligible for union jobs earning $70,000 annually while working toward a pension, Lessik said.

“This job is environmentally friendly, and I’m doing something that kids look up to,” said Lever, now 25 and finished with his first year of training. “I couldn’t get there by myself, and they helped me get there.”

Even getting up at 2:45 a.m. and dealing with maggots — and worse — on the job doesn’t seem to bother Lever.

“I am thankful that they gave me this opportunity to do something I wanted to do,” he said.

Will Montolla was once a high school dropout headed toward Oakland gang life, but says the program changed his life.

“I was in the streets doing bad things,” he said.

Montolla had run-ins with law enforcement and says he wasn’t looking to get a job. He envisioned a future in prison or dead. “I made some real dumb decisions. All I was trying to be was the toughest street kid around.”

Montolla is now 28 and a father. Through Civicorps, he earned a high school diploma and entered the truck-driving training program.

“It’s hard work and physically demanding,” he said. “You are always watching out for cars and kids and people crossing the street, but I’ve learned how to work really hard.”

That determination has not gone unnoticed.

Operations Manager Hector Abarca earned his high school diploma through Civicorps more than 20 years ago and has a good-paying job that supports his four children. He’s been impressed with Lever and Montolla.

“They’ve definitely set the bar high,” he said. “The next guys who go over there have big shoes to fill.”

Civicorps Recycling runs five routes, serving more than 800 commercial accounts, including the University of California, Berkeley, Oakland International Airport, Mills College and the Oakland Unified School District. It also serves more than 750 small businesses in Alameda County.

“It’s really cool to watch these young adults enjoy what they are doing and get past anything that happened to them before,” said Skolnick, of Waste Management. “It’s a great win-win for them and for us and for Civicorps, and a win-win for the city of Oakland.”

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