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Driving towards a new career

Date: Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Larbila "Bank" Bankangou

In the classrooms at Hawkeye Community College, student Larbila Bankangou was affectionately nicknamed Bank. The shortened version of his last name not only helped this Togo-native to break down language barriers with his instructors and fellow students, it also perfectly described his ability to learn and store information obtained during his Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) course. One of the biggest key points he quickly learned during his time at Hawkeye was that his tuition costs were covered.

Through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER II Gap Expansion), nearly $2.9 million was extended to Iowa’s 15 community colleges this year to provide additional financial support to students in short-term credential programs. Many students taking non-credit programs who were typically not eligible for other financial assistance, such as Gap Tuition Assistance or Last Dollar Scholarship, now have the opportunity to receive support for training in a high-demand job field, like CDL truck driving.

“GEER II Gap Expansion opens up the opportunity to serve students that earn too much income to qualify for other assistance but aren’t making enough to afford the $4,000 tuition for the CDL program,” said Keri Kono, career pathway navigator lead at Hawkeye Community College. “Without this funding, many participants like Bank wouldn’t be able to learn a new skill and advance in any way in their careers.”

Bankangou (second from right) stands with classmate Riva, CDL instructor Sara Smith and classmate Christian.

For Bankangou, who now resides in Waterloo, his career pathway definitely changed when he received his CDL certification last week. He has been working on the production line at a meat processing plant for entry-level wages, but now, he has several possibilities for a career in truck driving where salaries can range from $60,000 to $100,000 and beyond.

“I’m starting to apply to companies as a delivery driver right now,” Bankangou said. “I am still deciding if I want to drive (over the road) long distances or do shorter deliveries.”

With the current supply chain issues in Iowa and across the nation, Bankangou’s choice into either area will be welcomed by the truck driving industry. More truck drivers are desperately needed, and Hawkeye invites other adults looking for a career change or higher earnings to consider the CDL course.

“It can be hard to commit to a long-term training program and try to juggle a job at the same time,” Kono said. “The CDL class is only six weeks long, and at the end, students have a career change that will allow them to earn high wages. It’s an achievable goal, especially with the tuition assistance offered through GEER II Gap Expansion.”

Along with individual student successes, businesses also benefit from this initiative to provide funding support to CDL students.

“Employers don’t have to use their own funding to train new drivers,” said Sara Smith, lead CDL instructor at Hawkeye Community College. “They need drivers now and appreciate people who come in ready to go.”

Students in Hawkeye's six-week CDL program get hands-on opportunities.

High demand jobs in Iowa extend past CDL truck drivers, and Hawkeye has been trying to address those job market needs with the GEER II Gap Expansion funding, too.

“We have been able to provide tuition assistance through GEER II Gap Expansion for other courses like construction equipment operator, health-care receptionist and medical coding,” Kono said. “We’re also seeing an uptick in manufacturing job openings, so we may extend eligibility to courses in that area in the future.”

As Hawkeye continues to support students with their college and career pathways, Bankangou is ready to start his new working life. In addition to the CDL certification class, the native French speaker also studied for a year in several English Language Learner courses, and he has wise words for anyone looking to upskill.

“It’s not easy; it’s hard work,” he said. “But if you give your time and listen, you can make it.”