AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s been nearly a year since the Afghanistan pullout and almost six months since Russia began its attacks on Ukraine. Since then, Refugee Services of Texas has helped resettle more than 1,000 Afghan and Ukrainian refugees in Austin, and one local nonprofit is looking to address both refugee employment needs and the national truck drivers shortage through a new commercial driver’s license (CDL) program.

Global Impact Initiative is an Austin-based nonprofit that focuses on educational and workforce development opportunities globally but has honed in on assisting Austin’s growing refugee community. Last fall, Gii Executive Director Anjum Malik helped mentor refugees needing to receive English as a second language (ESL) translation assistance during their CDL exam preparations. Seven mentees went on to pass the CDL exam and are now apprentices in the hands-on driving portion of the CDL training, spurring the idea for an in-house training program.

Language barriers and CDL training

This summer, Gii launched an online CDL exam preparation course that incorporates ESL instruction, so students can become proficient in English and be eligible to sit for the written exam. Currently, 11 students are enrolled in the program, director Bob Ewigleben told KXAN.

In Texas, the CDL knowledge exam is only offered in Spanish and English. The need for English proficiency is critical within the industry, Ewigleben said, but can put refugees at a particularly difficult disadvantage.

“I think it’s a great idea if [refugees] could get a job and not have to worry about English proficiency,” he said. “But in the trucking industry, you’re out interacting with a wide variety of the public, with law enforcement, you name it. And to not be able to communicate pretty effectively [in English] is a severe detriment.”

Malik said within the initial mentorship program, she helped run mock situations where refugees would interact with members of the public and need to use English.

“What do you do if a police officer stops you? What do you do if you run a red light? What if you’re in a crash, what if you have a flat tire?” she said. “Regardless of how you look at it, every scenario requires knowledge of English. Without that, they cannot function.”

For refugees coming to the United States, one of the urgent needs is to find employment, Malik said. Students she worked with last fall who passed the CDL written exam and are now working as apprentices while gearing up for the hands-on exam are making between $44,000 and $68,000, she said.

As the United States navigates a commercial driver shortage, she hopes expanded ESL assistance and apprenticeship collaborations can make this a lucrative career for refugees.

A growing truck drivers shortage

Data from the American Trucking Associations has cited an 80,000-driver shortage within the United States. However, Texas Trucking Association president and CEO John Esparza said in an April Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts report that figure will only grow.

“We will be at 160,000 at the end of the decade,” Esparza said in the report. “We are losing a generation of drivers, and we aren’t replacing them with a generation of potential drivers that is large enough.”

Statewide, the Comptroller’s office reports 200,000 commercial truck drivers call Texas home. Data provided by the TxTA found 82% of Texas communities are dependent on trucks for necessary goods.

A March ATA report found driver pay has increased amid rising demands. The median salary for a truckload driver “working a national, irregular route” was more than $53,000 — up $7,000 from ATA’s last survey in 2013. Private fleet drivers surveyed reported a median pay of more than $86,000, up from $73,000.

While many truck driving companies have begun offering more competitive salaries and benefits, CDL training programs can still cost thousands of dollars — a difficult expense for refugees to navigate, Ewigleben said.

“The behind-the-wheel training and the costs…for some people, maybe $4,000 or $5,000 isn’t a big deal. But for these people, you know, that’s a big deal,” he said. “We’re really looking for partners with somebody who can help us figure out how can we provide that behind-the-wheel training component at a lower cost, or hopefully even free.”

Shawn Smith, Gii’s vice president of operations, said the nonprofit is currently in discussions with transportation businesses around the country over potential employment opportunities for Gii’s refugees.

Supplementary to Austin’s refugee community, Smith said Gii hopes to expand its CDL program beyond Texas and into rural communities that have difficulty with accessing employment or training opportunities.

“We want to make sure that our programs aren’t limited in capacity, but they’re providing as much benefit to the community at large as possible,” he said.