Lawson and his peers spend part of their training time gathered four to a tractor-trailer on the school's seven-acre truck-driving range.
Here, several rigs, engines growling, do a slow ballet around orange traffic cones and blue barrels set strategically on an expanse of blacktop. As instructors watch, students practice the close-quarter maneuvers and backing skills they will need as entry-level tractor-trailer drivers.
To graduate, each student must pass a driving evaluation, get an overall
average of 70 percent on written work and pass the state examination for a commercial tractor-trailer driver's license.
Students get behind the wheel on their second day of school.
"They've got to know the theory. But you can't learn to drive a truck sitting in a classroom," said Andrew Napolitano, All-State's assistant director.
"We do training for individuals who come to us to get into the industry. We also do contract training for a lot of different companies who send people to us," Napolitano said. Program applicants must, among other things, pass a
drug-screening test and have no DUI convictions within the last three years, Napolitano said.
Between 5,000 and 6,000 students have graduated from the Lester program, Napolitano said. "They're getting jobs. We literally have more job offers than I have students to fill the job offers," he said. All-State has placed more than 89 percent of the Lester school's 535 graduates in jobs in the 15- month period ending in March.
"What frustrates me is this 11 percent that hasn't gotten jobs," said Napolitano. "In a lot of cases, it boils down that they don't want to work in the industry. The important point is that those that do, go to work."
Pay scales vary. "Some are going to make upwards of $34,000, and some as low as $18,000. Twenty-six thousand to $30,000 is about average," said Napolitano. Pay generally tops $40,000 after five years of work, he added.
Demographics and changes in the transportation industry have created a driver shortage expected to continue through the year 2000, according to the American Trucking Associations. "There is always a demand for a good truck driver," said spokesman John Doyle. "You're not going to get rich driving a truck, but it's good, solid money."
The drivers particularly in demand are those willing to travel cross- country for extended periods of time, said Ed Kynaston, president of the California-based Professional Truck Driver Institute of America. "It isn't something that appeals to everyone."
The motivations that draw prospective drivers to All-State's Lester campus vary. "They're looking to improve themselves or make more money," said Napolitano. "But while they're doing this, they've got to keep food on the table. Most of our students have families. So they've got to keep their jobs."
To accommodate working students, All-State offers classes seven days a week, Napolitano said. The basic program includes 350 hours of training, over 20 weeks on a part-time schedule. Tuition is $4,275, plus additional fees for books and course materials.
There are about eight such schools in Pennsylvania, according to a spokeswoman in the state Department of Education. Nationally, the Professional Truck Driver Institute estimates, there are fewer than 200 such training schools.
Many students are making midlife occupational changes or getting new credentials after losing work in other industries. "These are people with a lot of skills, a lot of work experience. But right now it's just not marketable," said Napolitano. "They want to go where there is more money and more security."
Larry Rottenberk, 41, of Brookhaven, said he quit a middle-management customer-service job in search of a different lifestyle. Weary of sitting behind a desk, Rottenberk enrolled at All-State after learning about the program at a job fair. "I said, 'Hey, there's something I can get training in, and there's a demand for it.' "
Is he confident about his future job prospects? "Absolutely," said Rottenberk, who already has made the wardrobe transition to T-shirt and duckbill cap.
Women make up about 10 percent of All-State's students, a percentage that has grown steadily in recent years. Women made up about 4.5 percent of the nation's truck drivers in 1993, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Lori Beeler, a New Jersey resident, is an All-State graduate who worked several years as a driver. She has been a full-time All-State instructor for seven months.
The school has 30 instructors, both full and part time, with average experience of 24 years on the road, Napolitano said.
There is a demand for women drivers, although they still must overcome occasional skepticism and make an effort of "110 percent," Beeler said.
"You still have to deal with a certain amount of discrimination - not so much from employers as the people you meet out there on the road," Beeler said. "When a woman makes a mistake in a male-dominated field, it does stand out."