Welcome to Trucking 101, which is a basic informational course about trucks and truck driving for prospective drivers. I’m your instructor, Truckie-D.
First, let’s start with some basics:
Why do you want to be a truck driver?
Driving a truck is NOT for everyone. In my years as an instructor, I’ve found a few common characteristics that bode well for success in the trucking industry.
- You’ve got to like to drive.
While this may sound pretty basic, it really is an essential requirement. If you get bored driving to the store, or need to stop every 30 minutes, then you might want to look at other careers.
- You need a lot of patience.
There’s a lot of sitting around and waiting involved — in loading docks, traffic, truckstops, etc. Lack of patience can cause serious problems.
- You need to be *extremely* safety oriented.
Trucks are NOT just oversized cars. They’re heavy equipment, and can quite easily kill you or someone else. Even small things can turn around and bite you.
- You have to be comfortable being alone for long periods.
This may sound simple — but many people just can’t stand being alone. I once had a student who teamed up with another driver and did quite well for some months. When his team partner quit, he picked up a load, ran it a few miles, then turned around and came back to the yard with it. He just couldn’t stand being alone in a truck.
- You have to be a self-starter with a good work ethic.
Out on the road, there’s no boss standing over you with a stick. You’ve got to get up and move the freight down the road under your own power. Hours can be very long — 12 to 14 hour workdays are common.
- You need to be in reasonable physical condition.
You don’t need to be a bodybuilder, weightlifter, or any kind of jock. Average physical ability is enough. You’ll be climbing around the equipment, moving freight, coupling and uncoupling trailers. One young lady I had as a student probably didn’t weigh 90 pounds soaking wet – and she did just fine. (in fact, she was one of the best students I ever had).
- You need to be drug and alcohol free.
You’ll be taking pre-employment, and thereafter random drug and alcohol tests. If you’re involved in a crash (even if it’s not your fault) you’ll also be tested. A positive test, or refusal to test, is the absolute kiss of death in the industry. A little known fact is the reduced alcohol limit for CDL holders. If you have a CDL, the legal alcohol limit is .04 — half of what it is for everyone else. Yes, even in a car. Also, any detectable trace of alcohol (even below the .04 limit) will get you a 24 hour out-of-service order — which is also the kiss of death.
If you don’t meet *all* of the criteria above, then do yourself a favor and look elsewhere for employment. You may be able to get someone to hire and train you, but it’s a waste of time, since you won’t last. You’ll either quit, or get fired.
- You need a clean driving record.
Any crash involving a truck is *really* expensive. Trucking companies want to reduce their liability exposure as much as possible. If you have a lot of tickets, you’re going to have a tough time getting a job. Certain offenses are the absolute kiss of death — any dui, evasion, or felony, and you can forget it. Other moving violations, it depends on the type and number, and how recent they are, and the insurance provider for the company you’re applying to.
What’s your home situation like? Spouse? Kids? Trucking is *very* hard on families and relationships. The divorce rate among truck drivers is astronomical. Remember, you’re going to be gone most of the time. An employment ad for one trucking company bragged that “we get our drivers home almost every month”. That’s right, there are *months* that you might not get home. Depending on the company, you can plan on being gone a minimum of a week at at time — possibly up to 6 weeks or more. It partly depends on the company, and partly on where you live. If you live along any of the major freight lanes, you’ll get home more often. If not, you’ll be gone a lot more — if they’ll even hire you.
If your spouse/significant other can’t manage things without you around, you might want to rethink trucking as a career. It took my wife quite a while to adjust. She did, and now can accomplish quite a few more things without me around. Took a while though.
Trucking is also tough on kids — especially if they’re young. They’ll really miss you. A driver I know recently quit. I was talking to him about it, and he said he was getting ready to leave and his kids begged him not to go. For him, that was it — he quit, and found work locally. Even though he took a substantial pay cut, his kids were a lot happier.
Don’t underestimate the importance of family issues. While economic circumstances might be pushing you into a trucking career, if you don’t have a family when you come home, then what’s the point?
Ok, if you’ve made it this far, and still want to be a truck driver, then read on.
Getting into the industry
The first thing you’re going to need is a CDL — Commercial Driver’s License. Without a CDL just about all you’re going to be able to deliver is pizza.
There are a number of companies that will train you, and give you a job after you successfully complete training. Some of these companies have excellent programs, and are good companies to work for. Some are horrendously bad programs, and lousy to work for. So, how do you know what to do?
First, go by most any larger truckstop and look for the hiring magazine rack. There are a lot of these (free) publications. Some specialize in particular types of drivers, or owner operators. Pick up one of everything and take them home. Read every one, cover to cover. After you’ve read them all, you’ll be able to pick out the possible companies. Most will have their hiring and operating areas shown on a little map in the ad. Make sure you live in their hiring area, and their operating area is where you want to run.
Regional vs. National carriers
Some carriers run 48 states and Canada. Others restrict their operations to a regional area, or sometimes even to a single state. Local and regional will get you home more often, but national fleets generally pay better, and have more freight.
Once you’ve narrowed it down to a group of companies, the next thing to do is get some information about them. The best way to do this, is go back to the truckstop where you got the magazines, and hang out, looking for drivers from the companies you’re interested in. The best time is in the evening when most drivers are stopping for the night. If you’re afraid of talking to them, don’t be. Most drivers will happily talk your ears off. If a driver says he doesn’t have time to talk, don’t be offended — there are lots of loads with tight schedules. Just thank him, and move on. A good opening line is: “Hi..is (company) any good to work for?” Especially if you tell him you’re looking to get into the industry, most will happily give you advice. It’s helpful to have a small notebook and a pen with you. Many companies pay their drivers a referral bonus for new hires. If you talk to a driver, and his information leads you to a job with that company, then it’s only fair that he collect the bonus, since you’ve taken up his time. You may need to write down his name or truck number, or some other information. Some may give you a card with the required information on it.
Also, make sure you talk to more than one driver for any particular company. One who’s having a bad day might just bitch for an hour, when in actual fact it’s a good company to work for. An important question to ask is “how long have you worked for (company)?” If it’s at least two years, that’s a good sign.
Sitting at the counter with drivers is also informative. Ignore most of the “war stories” and look for demeanor. Are the drivers for a particular company looking happy or unhappy? Letting the counter crowd know you’re interested in driving will get you *lots* of advice — some of it might even be good. You’ll also hear lots of war stories. Best thing to find out is which companies are good, and which are bad.
By now you should have narrowed your list down to a handful of companies. Now’s the time to start making phone calls. When you talk to the recruiter, it helps to have a list of questions to ask.
Different companies have different deals for training. Some give it to you free (not many of those left anymore, if any). Most of them will give you the training in exchange for a commitment to work for them for a specified time after successful completion of the training. A year is the usual amount of time. If they want a longer commitment, view that with suspicion. Most of them will credit a portion of the training cost per week. Some don’t give you the weekly credit, so if you quit before your time is up, you’ll have to come up with the full amount.
There are also some that require you to sign an agreement for the full amount of the training, and then give you an amount per week (usual) or per month (less common), and you’ll have to make payments.
Some will provide a room and meals during training, and some require you to provide your own.
We’ll talk about CDL training schools a little later on.
Ok, you’re on the phone to the recruiter. He’s going to ask you about your work history. Make sure you have your work history going back 10 years — trucking companies are required by law to go back that far. He’ll need names, addresses, and telephone numbers for *everywhere* that you’ve worked in that period. If you have periods of unemployment, you’ll likely have to come up with witnesses to prove that you were unemployed, and not in jail.Most will take the word of a neighbor, church pastor, etc.
He’ll also want information on your driving record. You’ll need the state and license number for all driver’s licenses that you’ve held in the last 10 years. Some companies require you to get DMV printouts of your license history — most will obtain that themselves.
The important thing to remember, is BE HONEST about your work and driving history. Leaving out jobs will generally instantly disqualify you. Most trucking companies are ok with having worked a number of jobs (at least as long as it’s not one every other week).
At this point, if the recruiter is happy about your general qualifications, you may be invited to come in to fill out an application, and for an interview, or he’ll send you a package in the mail with an application to fill out.
If you’re invited in for an interview, make sure you look neat and clean. Some companies have restrictions on hair length, facial hair, and hats etc. Make sure you know if these restrictions exist. Even where they don’t, a haircut and a shave can go a long way toward getting you a job.
If you get a package in the mail, it should contain some information about the company, and their compensation package. Most companies pay by the mile — some pay on a percentage basis. Be wary of percentage pay. With a percentage scheme, empty miles generally aren’t paid. If you have a lot of deadhead miles, you’ll end up doing a lot of work for free. Companies that are paying company drivers on percentage are usually doing it for a reason, so be wary.
For mileage pay, you need to know the rates for loaded and empty miles, and whether they pay HHG (household goods miles), practical route miles, or hub miles. Practical route miles are around 8% more than HHG miles, so take that into account when comparing companies. Hub miles are a little more than practical route miles.
Ok, now let’s examine what happens if no recruiters want to hire you.
There are a large number of CDL training schools out there. They run the gamut from very good (such as C1 – I have a lot of experience with their students, and they’re very good) to really bad (no names please). The prices range from reasonable to absolutely outrageous. There are many state vocational-technical schools that run CDL training programs, as well as commercial schools. Costs can vary widely, so investigate thoroughly.
A few years ago, I had a student who had gone to one of these commercial schools. He paid $11,000 (!) for the training. He proudly showed me the diploma he’d gotten. The school recruiter had told him that “he could get a job anywhere with one of their diplomas”. It actually didn’t mean squat. He was really miffed when he found this out. He was even more upset when he found out he could have gotten the same training for around $3,000 from another school, or for free from us.
Most CDL training schools have deals with one or more trucking companies to refer students (for which they get a fat fee). The best way is to go to the companies directly, and get a hiring decision (contingent on you passing the training) from them first. If you can’t get a positive hiring decision from anybody, then don’t waste your money. CDL schools have been known to recruit students that are unemployable, so get that hiring decision FIRST. Don’t get sucked in by the standard recruiters pitch of “We’re well respected in the industry, and trucking companies are all competing for our students”. They’re not the ones hiring — the companies are. The company will tell you which school or schools are acceptable to them.
Classes usually last somewhere between two and six weeks. The shorter the class length, the tougher the course is going to be. The amount of classroom time and in-truck time will also vary, as will the number of students per instructor/truck. Ask about all of these things BEFORE you sign on that dotted line.
Now, let’s look at the best case – where you’ve gotten a positive hiring decision from a company.
First, you’re going to have to take a physical, and drug and alcohol test. Then, you’re going to have to get your CDL learner’s permit.
Some CDL classes include classroom work to prepare you for the permit — others don’t. Make sure you know in advance.
Getting the permit isn’t that hard — it’s just a lot of stuff to remember. Go to your local DMV branch and get a copy of the CDL manual for your state. It’s also available online in most states. Study it. Go and take the written. If you pass, then you get your permit. If not, you can usually take the written every day (usually for free) until you do pass. The recruiter or school will tell you what sections you need to study for the appropriate license (usually class A) and endorsements (usually HAZMAT, but maybe also tankers, or double/triple trailer).
Congratulations! You’ve now taken the first steps toward becoming a truck driver.
Now, it’s time to go to school.
There is a lot of stuff you’re going to have to learn. In my experience as a trainer, the two hardest things for most students to learn, are proper shifting, and backing up.
If you can drive a five speed in a car, you should generally have little trouble learning to double-clutch and shift your way through a ten speed in the truck. Some companies are going to automatic transmissions in their trucks, which eliminates the need to learn how to shift. If given the choice, learn the skill. If you want to change companies, most still use manual transmissions, so you need to know. Even if you’ve never driven a manual transmission, don’t be afraid of it. It’s an acquired skill, so it’s just a matter of practice.
Backing is similar in that it’s also an acquired skill, and not to be feared. Your instructor should teach you the proper techniques, then it’s simply a matter of practice. Don’t try to invent your own shortcuts. There’s a reason that the instructor is telling you to do it that way, so listen carefully and follow instructions. Some use a toy truck to illustrate the various techniques, and it can give you a different perspective, and help you learn quicker.
You’re also going to have to learn about the mechanical aspects of trucks. It’s a regulatory requirement that you do a pre-trip and post-trip inspection on your truck and trailer, so you need to be educated on what to look for.
You’ll also spend quite a bit of time in the classroom learning such things as how to read maps, navigate, correctly fill out a log book, get needed permits etc. There will also be a large chunk of time spent on regulations. Trucking is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country, and “I didn’t know” cuts no ice when the DOT man is writing you a citation for something. Most truckstops sell a small book with all of the Federal trucking regulations in them. If the school doesn’t supply one, pick one up and read it. Cover to cover. Several times. You have to be familiar with ALL of the regulations in that book. If going to a company school, you may also end up covering company-specific paperwork.
Ok, now the big day has arrived. Class is finished, and you’re about to take your CDL road test to get your license.
The first thing to remember, is BE CALM! I know that may be difficult to do, but it’s important. Get too wound up, and you’re going to forget your training, and make mistakes. The CDL examiner wants you to pass. Examiners don’t get paid extra for failing you. While they may give you the benefit of the doubt (or not) it’s nothing to worry about. The CDL road test isn’t that difficult, and if you were properly trained, you should have no difficulty in passing it. Worst case, you fail it, and try again after a little more practice on the area(s) you had problems with.
Congratulations! You’ve just passed your CDL exam.
What happens next very much depends on the company you’ve hired on with. Most will have you spend somewhere between a day and a couple of weeks on company orientation and possibly some additional training. A (very) few will simply hand you the keys and tell you to go haul some freight. Some may have you team up with another driver for some period of time. If given the option, I would suggest teaming with another driver. Especially when starting out, it’s always good to have some help available, even if it’s only another inexperienced driver like yourself. The best is to team with an experienced driver/ trainer and get some real over the road experience, and learn some of the myriad things that they didn’t teach you in class.
A word of caution: When you get through the training, and get out on the road, you may decide quite quickly that trucking really isn’t for you. If you come to that decision, do yourself (and everyone else on the roads) a favor and quit. Don’t let the fact that you may owe a few thousand bucks for the training make you keep driving. If it’s really not for you, then just move on to something else. Even if you think you’re going to have trouble paying the money back, quit anyway. Why? because people who don’t want to drive tend to not be the safest drivers on the highway. Do yourself a favor and quit before somebody (maybe even you) gets killed.
Comments and questions are welcome.