LFCC’s video simulators creating job opportunities for students

Lizzy Pannebecker, 22, of Gainesville, uses the new tractor trailer simulator at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown while Paxton Grimes, lead instructor for Commercial Driving Services, looks on. CDS partners with the college's Workforce Solutions to teach the course for students who want to receive a commercial driver's license. Rich Cooley/Daily


In a recent 90-day period, Lord Fairfax Community College had more than 1,000 job openings posted by area companies for truck drivers and heavy equipment operators.

The college is fast-tracking work force programs to arm graduates with driving skills and experience gleaned partly from operating triple-screened $50,000 Vortex video simulators.

Lizzy Pennebecker, of Gainesville, is taking the college’s one-month long, 160-hour simulator, classroom and behind-the-wheel truck driving training course to earn her commercial driver’s  license.

She is one of eight students at the LFCC Middletown campus’s Corron Community Development Center using a newly acquired trucking-driving simulator as part of the curriculum.

Lizzy Pannebecker uses the new tractor trailer simulator at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown. Rich Cooley/Daily

“It’s a great pro-active tool,” Pennebecker said while learning to manipulate an Eaton Fuller 10-speed transmission designed for a Freightliner tractor-trailer.

“I had never driven anything with a clutch before,” said the 23-year-old 2012 graduate of Ashburn’s Brentwood High School, whose LFCC training also includes classroom time and driving a real 16-wheel Freightliner tractor-trailer with supervision on a Front Royal driving course.

Pennebecker has been driving small horse trailers as part of her Gainesville business, Crimson Legacy, where she also teaches riding and trains horse owners how to load their horse trailers.

She said she hopes to get her CDL and be hired by one of three large horse hauling businesses to expand her experience and eventually build her business.

She has discovered the difference in driving a 2,500-pound horse trailer with a truck using automatic transmission and a 40-ton tractor-trailer with a manual transmission.

“Backing up is so different. I hit a cone backing up” the real Freightliner truck, she said, adding “With the simulator I don’t have to worry about damaging anything like I would in a real truck.”

With an abundance of lucrative openings for truck drivers with a CDL, former truck driver and veteran instructor Paxton Grimes, 44, said after graduation students can “easily” be hired at a beginning wage of $40,000 to $50,000.

“They come here with zero experience,” he said. “After they finish, they have the skill set to get a CDL.”

“There is such a need in our area for these construction and transportation jobs,” said Guy Curtis III, director of marketing for the college’s WorkForce Solutions progams. “It is a wonderful opportunity for folks.”

One of the graduates from the first simulator-aided heavy equipment operating class last month was Collin Gould, 21, then operating a bobcat loader making $11 an hour.

“The simulators were spot on,” said Gould, who lives in Chantilly. “It was a good course for anyone going into it that had never operated equipment.”

After completing the course he was hired at $16.50 an hour by S.W. Rogers, a Virginia site construction company.

Grimes works for CDS Tractor Trailer Training School in partnership with LFCC. After a tragic accident four years ago ended his driving career, Grimes has taught more than 600 students the CDL curriculum at LFCC.

He likes the simulators.

“Basically, every scenario they will have to do in the real work, I can put through in the simulation so they know what to do and how to react,” he said.

“They will taking 80,000 pounds to work every day,” he said.

He changes the driving environment like a video game challenge to operate gears, brakes and speed in highway traffic, on curves and ramps, in snow, wind, fog and on turns on urban streets.

“The biggest advantage is it eliminates distractions that occur in the world in real time,” Grimes said.

He has them practice hand and feet synchronizations while double clutching, shifting gears and even reacting to a sudden failure in air pressure that makes them go through an emergency stop on the simulator.

“They develop shifting and muscle memory doing the second gear shifting,” he said.

While he would rather be driving a tractor-trailer again but is hampered by the injuries sustained in the accident four years ago, he has grown to love teaching.

“When they grasp it and I see the awe in them and when they come after the course, you can see their emotion,” he said. “They say I have changed their life and they now have a career in front of them. That’s why I do it.”