AUGUSTA — Parker Gardner parallel parked, tightly rounded a trash can and backed up to cones representing a dock before stopping ahead of a line on the ground. The judge’s measuring stick was flush to the dump truck’s grille, indicating a perfect score.

The 17-year-old has the right genes. His grandfather founded W.T. Gardner & Sons, a logging and trucking company in Lincoln. Last week, he got a license to drive a tractor-trailer after spending a summer hauling gravel off-road for the family business.

But trucking isn’t a chore for Gardner. “I like it, too,” he said. “It’s fun.”

He was one of approximately 50 students to participate Wednesday in the Dick Dolloff Memorial Student Driving Competition, hosted at the Augusta Civic Center by four Maine technical schools and the Maine Professional Drivers Association. It tests high school students enrolled in truck driving classes on driving skills and puts them through pre-trip inspections similar to license tests.

The top two finishers from each school in the two driving classes move on to a May championship in Bangor.

Vicki Kimball, driving instructor at Tri-County Technical Center in Dexter, said the contest is a key opportunity for students to demonstrate what they have learned, but it’s a challenge. She said the trucks that students were given to drive on Wednesday had larger wheel bases and different turning radiuses than those that many of them have driven before.

“There is no homefield advantage for anybody,” said Kimball, whose school serves parts of Piscataquis, Somerset and Penobscot counties. “This is a blast.”

These days the contest is particularly relevant. In 2012, the American Trucking Associations pegged the commercial truck driving shortage at between 20,000 and 25,000 and said if current trends continue, it could balloon to 239,000 by 2022. It’s an issue for some employers in Maine.

For example, Augusta-based Performance Foodservice — NorthCenter, part of a nationwide food delivery company, could hire seven drivers now to make deliveries in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Driver trainer Matt Beck said starting wages are $17 with incentives and schedules are flexible.

But he couldn’t make job pitches to competitors in Wednesday’s contest.

In Maine, people can get commercial licenses at age 16, but companies often can’t hire employees under 21, the minimum age under federal law to drive a commercial vehicle across state lines.

By then, Beck said, many potential employees have gone to college or gotten other jobs, and the work is “just not people’s forte today.”

“It’s not the easiest work, so a lot of people kind of shy away,” he said.

Gardner, despite his love of trucking, is one of those people who’s likely to leave trucking behind.

The Mattanawcook Academy junior said he’s planning to go to college to study forestry management, and the truck license is a way to make more money this summer hauling wood chips to paper mills.

“I’ll probably end up not using it over time,” he said, “but it’s good to have and I’ll use it for now.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme


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