Truck Driving Program Grad Ascends from Prison to a Promising Career

By on May 3, 2019
Johnathan Hatcher Jr., CDL-A and SkillUP Graduate

Spend mere seconds in Johnathan Hatcher Jr.’s presence, and you’ll have a hard time envisioning his bright, effervescent personality detained for a decade within the confines of prison. Many people would abandon their ambitions or lose hope and emotionally crumble under those conditions, but not Hatcher.

“I’m always just an optimistic, open type,” Hatcher proclaimed. “My life has already had so many trials and tribulations and adversities to where I just always try to be positive and upbeat. I feel like I’m here to be the change that I want to see instead of just complain about things.”

That mentality combined with his irrepressible willpower has helped Hatcher endure hardships early in life and overcome the consequences of choices that landed him in prison—choices that could have curbed his ability to provide for himself or a family, never mind establish a promising career. But his positive attitude and persistence seem to be paying off.

Hatcher graduated in July 2018 from St. Louis Community College’s CDL-A Professional Truck Driving program, a 200-hour commercial driver’s license (CDL) program that prepares participants to enter the commercial driving industry as an over-the-road or local truck driver. Since 2015, the truck driving program’s comprehensive curriculum and hands-on training has provided students with the knowledge and skills to enter this growing field.

Truck driving school paves the way for a felon-friendly profession

Commercial driving first caught Hatcher’s interest as a viable career path while he was incarcerated.

“I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” Hatcher said about his decision to obtain a CDL. “It’s felon-friendly, for one. For two, it’s a career that’s in strong need. They need ninety-thousand truck drivers in America, and the fact of the matter is I can take that [license] anywhere. Not just in America, I can take it anywhere.”

He grins, adding, “And me being locked up for ten years, you have to understand, I do have traveling on my mind.”

A self-proclaimed lifelong learner, Hatcher has always believed in the power of education to enable an individual to rise above any situation. Prior to his felony, Hatcher was drawn to biology, intrigued by his exposure to science in the countless hours he spent in healthcare facilities as a child accompanying his mother as they sought essential care for his younger brother’s medical conditions.

“My little brother, my only sibling, he’s twenty-seven-years old now with the mind of a six-month-old,” Hatcher said. “He has cerebral palsy, epilepsy, seizures. So, we spent a lot of time—the majority of my childhood—just in and out of hospitals.”

Hatcher’s deep love of knowledge that took root in his youth benefited many of his fellow inmates when he assumed a role as an instructor for General Education Development (GED) tests while in a maximum-security correctional center in Jefferson City, Missouri. His efforts proved quite fruitful; his students had a 98% graduation rate.

“I tutored for two years, and I fell in love with teaching. I enjoyed it,” Hatcher said. “I was in a level-five prison with people who are there for the rest of their lives. They’re never getting out. School is voluntary, and we are the teachers. Inmates are teaching inmates. I had the personal satisfaction of seeing those individuals try to strive for something so great. It makes you stay on top of your game seeing them push so hard in that situation. They’re doing this for them and their own betterment and peace of mind.”

Witnessing the accomplishments of his students inspired Hatcher to stay focused on his own future as well.

“While they were taking tests, that’s when I opened up my first CDL manual in 2009,” Hatcher said. “I’ve got to be quiet so I’m just in there studying the CDL manual, reading as much as I could, and I always had it in my mind that once I got out I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

State-funded SkillUP program assists SNAP recipients

He wasted no time putting his plan into action when he was released from prison on March 16, 2018. Hatcher first needed to find a funding source, and his research led him to the job center for the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE). After exploring a few options and facing an initial funding setback, he was put in touch with Ambrosia Harrison from STLCC’s SkillUP program. The SkillUP program assists Missouri food stamp recipients who desire training or support to become employed or to improve their current employment situation. From there, the pieces began to fall into place.

“I got in touch with Ambrosia and Bahi [Talundzic] from the CDL program. I think I met with them once or twice, and everything was just beautiful,” Hatcher said. “The start of school, the schedule—everything just flowed smoothly. It was what I was waiting on. I was working hard, just grinding and grinding. I needed that big break.”

Hatcher’s persistence got him a seat in the class, but his optimistic mindset and steadfast work ethic were key to his success in the truck driving program. CDL students rotate through a rigorous combination of classroom instruction, driving simulator time and 45 hours of driving, exceeding the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) proposed minimum standards for training tractor trailer drivers. Graduates enter the field with the knowledge and confidence they need to safely, expertly manage such sizable vehicles.

“It’s five weeks, forty hours a week, so it’s like a full-time job,” Hatcher stated. “But I loved it because St. Louis Community College’s program was so amazing. We were there eight hours a day, so I got a lot of over-the-road, hands-on experience. I think if you’re going to send someone out there with a piece of eighty-thousand-pound equipment, you need to make sure they have the safety procedures down and they know what they’re doing.”

The students developed a deep bond, encouraging each other and pushing one another to succeed. Two of the participants in Hatcher’s class already had some exposure to commercial driving and were able to share insights with the students new to the industry.

“That worked out so well. With them having experience riding on tractors, being on farm equipment, dump trucks and everything, they could really help us out,” Hatcher said.

STLCC’s CDL school bolsters comprehensive curriculum with invaluable networking

Peer-to-peer knowledge sharing is just one of the many powerful ways truck driving program students learn the trade. Instruction is delivered by a team of facilitators with a broad spectrum of experience, which allows the students to gain insights about the commercial driving industry from a wide variety of viewpoints. Hatcher reaped tremendous value learning from diesel mechanics, local drivers for private corporations, and drivers who worked in global training yards.

“It was amazing because you got different perspectives from everyone about where you could go in the field,” he said. “It was beautiful for me, from an experience standpoint. [You could] ask all your questions and get hands-on experience and a full understanding of everything.”

STLCC not only sets CDL students up to succeed in obtaining a commercial driver’s license, but in finding a pathway to employment. One of the greatest advantages for truck driving program participants is the expansive group of prospective employers eager to meet them while they are still in training.

“We had different recruiters come up and buy us lunch and just talk to us,” Hatcher said. “That’s networking. You’re already out there making contacts before you even get your CDL license. You have forty-five emails from people, and job offers. It is amazing.”

Beyond the invaluable resources offered by the College, Hatcher relied heavily on the support of his family to achieve success in the program.

“You have to think, I just got out of prison after ten years so I’m starting from nothing at all,” he said. “Luckily, I had family and support taking me back and forth to help me out to get me to the places I’m going and helping with the paperwork process. It was invaluable. A support system is so important, I think, for anybody from any walk of life. Especially when it’s positive support. Someone who wants to see you grow and aspire to your full potential. But even more so coming from my situation, coming from prison.”

Hatcher also admitted that, regardless of the backing participants receive from the College and their personal support systems, students need to dig deep within themselves and tap into their own perseverance to get through.

“[It requires] dedication above anything,” he said. “You have to be ambitious. You have to be dedicated. You have to be focused.”

For Hatcher, graduation was a much-needed symbol of his ability to start fresh, an opportunity to rise above a dark shadow in his past and get back on track to live the life he had dreamed of for so many years.

“[Graduating] felt amazing because being gone and away from society for that long, to get that license, to graduate from the program, it felt like I was doing the right thing. I loved it,” he said. “The SkillUP program and St. Louis Community College were the launching pad. Wherever I go from here, that was ground zero. That was my starting point. They’re not only giving you the funding for school but they’re handing you a whole career. I’ll be forever grateful.”

A bright future born from a truck driving career, a support system and a positive outlook

After he graduated, Hatcher wanted to find a job that aligned with the work-life balance he craved. He had already spent a significant time away in prison, so he was eager to land an opportunity that did not require a lot of long-distance driving.

“I’m so family oriented and I’ve been gone for a decade,” he said. “I felt like, I’ve got my license and this career’s going to be here forever. Whenever I decide to go on the road, if money gets tight and I need to go, I can go.”

Fortunately, an opportunity arose for him at a rather interesting time, with a rather interesting interview process. He received a phone call from the owner of a local, privately-owned distribution company on a Friday afternoon while washing clothes in a laundromat.

“He called me and said, ‘I saw your resume on ziprecruiter.com and I was just trying to schedule an appointment to see if we could do an interview,” Hatcher said.

The two went back-and-forth trying to arrange a time to meet over the weekend, but both had family obligations preventing them from doing so.

“I told him, ‘I’m sure you want to go to church and stuff Sunday so let’s just shoot for Monday morning. And he said, ‘You know what? I like the way you talk. Want to start Monday?’ Right over the phone. And that’s who I work for,” Hatcher smiled. “Amazing. Karma. Life is beautiful.”

Hatcher’s life has taken an extraordinary turn and he has tangible evidence to show for it. In less than a year after his release from prison, he has a new fiancé, a running start on a promising career path, and he recently closed on a beautiful home that he was able to fully furnish with his earnings.

“I went from $8.50 a month to a guaranteed $20 an hour. Guaranteed. If I’m in my profession, and I’m working local, I’m guaranteed at least $20 an hour. That’s amazing!” he said. “Just to be able to live the lifestyle I’ve been waiting to live and just enjoy the fruits of my labor, to have that [home] environment, I’m just so grateful. I’ve been thinking about it and dreaming about it for so long. It’s been a blessing. My life is amazing.”

On the horizon for Hatcher is a wedding, plans for recreational travel once his supervision period expires in the fall, and a full, grateful life, soaking up simple pleasures and trying to make a difference in the world.

“What’s crazy is people would think you get out of prison and party, make up for lost time, but I just want to barbecue. Be with my family. Just the simple things, to be able to take a shower after work, lay down in bed and watch the game,” he said. “That’s why I’m so happy. I’m at peace. It’s beautiful to me. People get blindsided by so many material things that we don’t appreciate the world around us. Life is so short, and you can’t take any of that with you. None of that matters.”

Hatcher’s story is one of overcoming—of mentally rising above the barriers, capitalizing on opportunities and digging deep to persevere. His past offense may limit some of his future career options, but his spirit and ambition cannot be contained. He realizes the gravity of his offense and has paid the price for his mistake, but now he intends to press forward, work tirelessly to chart a new course for the future, and spread some hope along the way.

“I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. I was there [in prison] for a reason. I needed to learn the lessons I learned, and I came out here and basically, the only thing I ever really, truly pray for is for God to show me my purpose in life. That’s it,” Hatcher said. “I think a lot of that is just being an example to my family, trying to set a foundation, and just trying to be an inspiration and motivation to everybody. Just leave a mark in this world to where I leave it better—leave an impact, to make a change, make a difference. That’s how you live forever.”

Prospective students interested in the CDL truck driving program can find additional information on STLCC’s CDL-A Professional Truck Driving program web page. Visit STLCC’s SkillUP Missouri page to learn more about SkillUP training scholarships for short-term training programs and support services.

About Rebecca Rutherford

Rebecca Rutherford is Marketing Communications Coordinator of St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group, which delivers non-credit continuing education opportunities, corporate training and community services to the St. Louis region.

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