Phoenix trains apprentices to become sanitation workers

Apprentice David Saenz said driving large trucks has not been easy as he thought it would be, and that he’s hit a few curbs and needs to learn better lane control for the right-hand-drive vehicles. He said there’s a lot more responsibility when driving the trucks, and he jokes with his wife and tells her “I’m a professional driver now.” (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The job involves working on a 400-horsepower truck weighing more than 20 tons with a full payload, driving on the right side of the vehicle and collecting garbage while much of the world still sleeps.

Being a sanitation worker is no easy task, but someone has to do it.

For those who think they may be up for the job, Phoenix offers the Solid Waste Equipment Operator Apprenticeship – an intensive, yearlong paid program to give prospective sanitation workers intensive training before they embark on the city’s streets.

Instructor Luis Dominguez said the apprenticeship started last year as a way to better train and retain new drivers and to give potential employees incentive to work for the city instead of a private company, such as Waste Management. The city held a pilot program in 2017, but Dominguez considers this year’s five apprentices to be the first official class.

The five began the apprenticeship in March. Some were new to the field, while others have been working with the city for years.

“The targets were veterans, women and youth; raw talent,” Dominguez said. “Usually the normal criteria for a sanitation driver is two years driving (experience).”

Saira Lepur said she worked office jobs for years, but she thought she’d be good at this job. She interviewed for the pilot program, but didn’t make it. She came back for the second round and was accepted into the program.

“From the minute I got in the city, I’d seen what (the drivers) did and thought, ‘Oh my God, I want to learn this!'” Lepur said.

Another apprentice, Jose Perez, said he had previous experience operating heavy machinery, but he said he learned a lot from the training. After two months, he said was looking forward to the next several months and then graduation.

The program began with commercial driver’s license training in a large parking lot, followed by the commercial driving test. After apprentices practiced with controlling left-hand training trucks, they switched to right-hand trucks on a closed course made to resemble city streets in the middle of an industrial area of south Phoenix. Later in the program, they will practice on real routes across the city.

To operate the truck safely, apprentices must memorize an extensive list of how all the truck systems work and closely inspect their vehicles before and after each drive.

Apprentice Steven Pike said the goal is to not only lower the employment turnover rate among solid waste operators, but to provide better job security for the people who go through the program. Pike and his fellow apprentices will be paid more than $17 per hour after they graduate early next year into salaried, steady jobs with Phoenix. Truck drivers start at $17.07 per hour and eventually, with salary increases based on merit and other factors, could make about $23 an hour, a city spokeswoman said.

The city serves about 350,000 households, according to its website. The Public Works Department has nearly 270 solid waste equipment operators – also known as garbage truck drivers, according to the department.

“They’re setting you up for success,” Perez said. “They’re training you to love this job, to keep you in the long run. I’m not going away.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the salary for entry-level truck drivers. They make $17.07 an hour.

Steven Pike (left) and David Saenz help out one of their fellow apprentices practicing parallel parking with a trailer. Instructor Luis Dominguez said the maneuver won't really be used in driving a garbage truck, but that it's important to know how to drive all kinds of large trucks in different situations. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

Apprentice Jose Perez said he has worked for the City of Phoenix for 17 years, but working with these massive trucks is different than what he was used to. "It's like driving a tank, not like driving a little city pickup truck," he said. "It's like I'm conquering the world with this." Perez said this program has put more of an emphasis on safety than any other job he's had in the past, and so far it's not only made him a better driver, but a better person. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

In the second year of the apprenticeship, five new driver trainees, four men and one woman, have committed to train full time for nearly a year to complete the program. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

Instructor Luis Dominguez (left) talks with apprentice Steven Pike about how to improve on parallel parking. "Normal people don't do this," Dominguez said. "You have to build your skills up," especially relying on mirrors more than in a normal car. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

A long list of items to be inspected and tested is all part of the program. Instructor Luis Dominguez said the apprentineship isn't just about learning to drive trucks, but how they work and how to fix them. If something simple goes wrong, the driver might not need to call for a mechanic if they can diagnose and take care of the problem themselves. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

Apprentice Saira Lepur said she had never done anything like this apprenticeship before, having had an office job before she applied. She said that because she was a woman applying to the program, she "had a lot of people tell me 'don't do it, it's not as easy as you think.' But I can do it," she said. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

Instructor Dominguez said the apprentice program is designed to give drivers the skills to do the job well, and to cut down on the job turnover rate of the city's garbage truck drivers, which has been a problem in recent years. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

Steven Pike, David Saenz, and Andrew Broughton joke with each other while practicing their backing-up skills for their Commercial Driver's License test. Pike said the apprentices are paid between $15 and $17 an hour to do the training. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

The City of Phoenix Solid Waste Equipment Operator Apprenticeship class of 2018 includes (from left), Jose Perez, Saira Lepur, Andrew Broughton, David Saenz and Steven Pike. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

Conversation during breaktime led to a disagreement when an apprentice claimed that one of two trailers being used in the training was shorter and therefore easier to maneuver than the other. Dominguez settled the argument with a walking measure wheel. Both trailers were exactly the same size. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

The apprenticeship includes classroom time as well as hands-on experience. Every aspect of the job is covered, from how the trucks operate to mapping out routes for trash collection. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

The training materials on the CDL course are not without wear and tear. Many cones have been run over and trucks have been scraped in certain places as new drivers continue to practice and learn. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

The City of Phoenix's Solid Waste Equipment Operator apprenticeship is one-of-a-kind, and aims to not only provide drivers with their commercial license, but to safely and effectively operate the city's garbage trucks. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

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