How to Become a Truck Driver

Congratulations! You have decided to take employment into your own hands and pursue a rewarding career as a truck driver.

Truck drivers play an integral role in the world’s economy and the demand for skilled drivers has never been higher. The best part is that your job as a truck driver will never be outsourced; as long as people have a need to transport materials and goods, there will be a need for drivers to transport those things.

As a professional truck driver, there is nothing between you and life on the open road. You will get to travel all over the country and meet people from far and wide, all on your own schedule.

Read on to learn more about the profession and how you can get started on your truck driving career.

What Does a Truck Driver Do?

Truck drivers, as the name implies, are trained in the operation of large transport trucks and semis to transport goods from one location to another.

Truck drivers transport goods, not people, and their activity is 100% necessary to keep the wheels of the global economy turning.

The kind of goods truck drivers transport depends on the transportation company and the customer. Common goods include wood, metals, livestock, food, and manufactured products.

Most truck drivers are employed by a transportation or a shipping company.

The company is what decides which products you transport and where they go. Alternatively, more truck drivers are opting to become self-employed, many of these drivers owning their own shipping companies.

Driving a semi is a difficult task that requires substantial training. In general, there are two types of loads that truck drivers deal with, light and heavy loads. Light loads are any materials that weigh less than 26,000 lbs. Anything heavier is considered a heavy load. Heavy loads require specially designed trucks and normally require drivers to have a specific license for operating heavy machinery.

Truck Driver Duties

Common duties of truck drivers include:

  • Driving and transporting cargo
  • Loading and unloading cargo
  • Recording deliveries and shipments
  • Clean and maintain their truck
  • Follow traffic laws and any specific rule surrounding truck operation
  • Interact with customers
  • Plan route for speed and efficiency
  • Follow accident protocols

Desirable Skills & Qualities of a Truck Driver

Being a truck driver is not an easy task. You have to have a lot of motivation, patience, and a willingness to be behind the wheel for potentially over 12 hours at a time.

Truck drivers must also have knowledge of the operation of heavy machinery and knowledge of state laws and regulations for driving and operating a truck.

Lastly, truck drivers must have an impeccable driving record.

Customer Service

Truck drivers spend a lot of their time dealing face to face with customers. As such, truck drivers should have a friendly demeanor and enjoy working with people.

Attention to Detail

Trucks are large and have the potential to do a lot of damage if not handled properly. Truck drivers must be very details oriented and have good focus. Driving over 12 hours can make you tired and less likely to focus on the road. When you are carrying potentially millions of dollars in shipments, one accident can cause great economic loss.

Additionally, truck drivers need to be attentive to the kind of materials they are transporting. Often, specific materials will require specific loading/unloading procedures, or they need to the interior of the truck bed to be at a certain temperature, or clients may be particular about how materials are stored. Truck drivers routinely deal with expensive cargo so they need to pay attention to make sure it is safe.

Physical Strength & Stamina

Truck driving is a physically intensive task, so drivers must be physically fit and strong. Apart from loading and unloading potentially heavy material, routinely driving long hours takes a lot of stamina. You need to be awake and alert at all times while driving.

Time Management Skills

As a truck driver, you will often have to make time-sensitive deliveries. One day you may have to transport some materials to St. Louis, the next maybe Houston. Planning your schedule and driving routes to meet deadlines is a crucial skill for being a successful truck driver.

Independence and Motivation

Truck driving requires a certain level of motivation and drive (pun intended). You have to be able to make and execute your own plans, and, if you are working independently, schedule clients and deliveries.

Business Sense

Since more and more truck drivings are becoming self-employed, it is a good idea for potential truck drivers to learn a bit about business operation and management. Self-employed truck drivers typically own their trucks and contract with companies for deliveries. As an independent business owner, you will need to know about things like accounting, taxes, management, and any rules and regulations.

Truck Driver Education Requirements

There are no special education requirements to become a truck driver, though many companies prefer to hire applicants with at least a high school diploma or GED.

Truck drivers do have to obtain a special commercial driving license (CDL) that certifies them to operate heavy trucks across state lines.

To obtain a CDL, you must first attend a truck driving school. While there you will learn the operation and specific regulations behind truck driving.

Most programs require students to be at least 21 years old, or that they will be 21 years old by the completion of the program.

Many programs also you to have a clean driving record as well as pass a physical exam and drug screening.

Once completing the program and passing any required tests/background checks/drug screening, students must pass a state-mandated written and practical exam to acquire their CDL.

You can apply for your CDL at the state DMV office.

After passing the exam, you will be legally certified to work as a commercial truck driver.

Accreditation

Picking the right CDL program is probably the single most important part of training to be a truck driver. In general, there are three kinds of CDL classes, licensed, certified and accredited. While each kind of program will grant a fully operational CDL upon completion, some programs are superior to others in terms of curriculum and job prospects.

Licensed schools are the “bare minimum” programs and meet the state’s basic requirements, faculty, and training.

Certified programs meet all state requirements and are inspected by an independent third party company to ensure the program is up to a certain standard.

Lastly, accredited programs follow all state regulations set by the Department of Transport and also meet standards set down by the U.S. Department of Education.

In general, it is a good idea to take at least a certified course. The Professional Truck Driver Institute (PTDI) is an international accreditation body that sets standards for CDL course.

What You’ll Study

Truck driving courses aim to teach the basics of heavy machine operation, maintenance, and safety. The exact course you take will depend on the specific program but there are some core requirements for all of them.

Specific topics covered in a CDL training course may be:

  • CDL general knowledge
  • Air brakes
  • General maintenance
  • Pre-trip inspection
  • Safety awareness
  • Practical application
  • Driving laws and regulations

Certain courses may focus specifically on one area of driving. In general, CDL courses have a mixture of in-person instruction and hands-on training.

Training Information & Types

There are 3 major types of CDLs, each one corresponding to a particular type and weight of the vehicle you can drive. These three CDLs are Class A, Class B, and Class C.

A quick important note on CDL licenses. CDL licenses are not only for driving trucks that transport commercial vehicles. CDL licenses are for any kind of commercial heavy vehicle, such as busses, construction tractors, hazmat trucks, and other non- material transport truck or bus. So a CDL license not only prepares you to be a commercial truck driver but also to drive any kind of large heavy vehicle.

Class A commercial driving licenses are legally required to operate any vehicle with a combined weight of over 26,000 pounds, given that the towed load is more than 10,000 pounds. A Class A CDL will certify you to drive the following types of vehicles:

  • Tractor-trailers
  • Livestock vehicles
  • Flatbed trucks
  • Semi-trucks

A Class A license may also make you eligible to operate vehicles covered under Class B and Class CDLs.

Class B CDLs are required to operate a vehicle with a combined weight of over 26,000 pounds, in which the towed load is less than 10,000 pounds. The main difference between a Class A and Class B CDL is the weight limit of towed loads. A Class B license allows you to drive vehicles like:

  • Passenger buses
  • Segmented buses
  • Dump trucks with trailers
  • Straight trucks

A Class C license qualifies you to drive any vehicle that can hold more than 16 passengers (including the driver) or transport hazardous materials.

There are also commercial learner’s permits (CLP). CLPs are given by the state and authorize you to practice driving a commercial motor vehicle. To apply for a CPL you must be at least 18-20 years old, depending on the state. CPLs normally only allow permit holders to drive in-state.

CDL Course

The “standard” method of becoming a commercial truck driver is to first complete a certified CDL course, apply for your license, and pass a written/practical exam at the state DMV office. Strictly speaking, you do not have to complete a CDL course before applying for a CDL license, though the training in a CDL course will make the exam much easier. Additionally, employers prefer employees who can show they are educated on operating commercial motor vehicles.

A general focus CDL course can take anywhere between a few weeks to a few months, depending on your chosen schedule. A general level CDL course will cover the basic rules of operation with in-class instruction supplemented by practical training.

Admission Requirements

There are generally no special education requirements to be admitted to a CDL program. At the very least, you need a drivers license. Some CDL programs may require your driver’s record to make sure you are a competent driver and have no outstanding traffic violations or DUIs. You may also have to meet certain medical requirements set down by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.

Courses

CDL programs are comprehensive and are not split into distinct “courses” like a traditional college degree. Some topics expected to be covered in a program include:
  • Road signs meaning and regulations
  • Operation of trucks
  • How to plan runs
  • Inspecting vehicles
  • Safety procedures
  • Computer training
  • Keeping electronic logs and records
Specific training operating a vehicle focuses on situations like:
  • Making wide turns
  • Railroad crossings
  • City and highway driving
  • Brake testing

Online Truck Driver Programs

There are a number of online CDL programs that offer full training. Several online courses are free and require no payment to access course materials. The main problem with online CDL courses is that they usually do not offer hands-on training and they tend to not be certified or accredited. That is why it is the best idea to find an in-person course that has hands-on practice as part of the curriculum.

How to Get Your Truck Driver License

All commercial motor vehicle operators are required to have a state-granted CDL to legally work as a truck driver. The exact requirements for the license differ by state but in general, you must be at least 21 years old to apply. You can apply for a CDL at your local DMV office. You will be required to take a written exam that covers the basics of vehicle operation, maintenance, safety, and road rules. The specific test you take depends on the license classification s(Class A, Class B, Class C) that you are pursuing.

Along with the general exam, there are a number of endorsement tests you can take to drive specifical types of commercial motor vehicles. Each endorsement test is designated by a letter:

  • (P) Passenger Transport: Operating vehicles with passengers, like buses, vans, etc.
  • (S) School Bus/Passenger Transport Combo: Passenger vehicles along with school buses
  • (T) Double/Triple: Double and triple trailer trucks
  • (N) Tank Vehicle: Operation of tanker vehicles, e.g. septic tanks, chemical tanks, water tanks, etc.
  • (H) Hazardous Materials
  • (HAZMAT): Operation of vehicles containing contaminated biological waste and chemicals
  • (X) Tanker/HAZMAT Combo: Operation of both tanker and HAZMAT vehicles

When you apply for your CDL license you will declare which endorsements you want to earn. Most states initially limit you to 3 endorsements. Each endorsement consists of a written portion covering the operation of specific vehicles and road skills.

Endorsements typically do not require an extra fee or application other than the one for your CDL. Some endorsements, particularly the ones dealing with dangerous materials such as the HAZMAT endorsement, may require specific forms of identification of fingerprints.

License Renewal

CDLs are normally valid for about 5 to 8 years. Maintaining a CDL requires a yearly physical exam. Other than that, there are no special requirements to maintain a license during the first 5 to 8 years.

To renew your CDL you are normally required to send in an application for renewal. Often, these applications will require a recent eye exam, a copy of your Medical Examiner’s Certificate, and any renewal fees. If your license expires and you neglect to get it renewed after a certain period of time, you may be required to retake the CDL exam to get a new one, which is more expensive than just renewing on time.

It is highly recommended you are prompt about renewing your license as the deadline approaches. Driving with an expired license is illegal and can be met with heavy penalties and fines. You may also see added points on your license, increased insurance premiums, and possibly have your license revoked.

4 Steps to Become a Commercial Truck Driver

Let’s go over the basic steps of how to become a commercial truck driver

Step 1: Attend a Certified CDL Course

First things first, you need to build the skills and knowledge need to pass the DCL exam. While it is entirely possible to teach yourself using free online materials, it is almost always a better option to pay to go to a certified CDL program that involves hands-on training. Certified CDL courses also tend to have better job prospects after completion.

Step 2: Obtain Your CDL

The next step after completing your course is to apply and pass the state exam for your CDL. The CDL exam includes a written knowledge section and specific assessments for any endorsements you choose.

Step 3: Find a Job

Most commercial truck drivers are employed by a shipping or transportation company. More and more truck drivers are opting to be self-employed. If you eventually want to be a self-employed truck driver, it is recommended you find a job in the industry for a year or two at first, just so you can learn the basics of running a shipping company before setting off on your own.

Step 4: Maintain/Renew Your CDL

Most CDLs are good for 5 to 8 years. Generally, you will be required to submit to a yearly physical to maintain your license. When your license is almost up, you will need to renew it by sending a renewal application, a recent vision test, and any required fees.

Truck Driver Salary & Growth

Truck drivers face great entry-level salaries and good potential for career growth. The median annual salary for commercial truck drivers in 2018 was $43,680 ($21/hr).

Truck driving is a big industry with the number of jobs reported in 2016 at 1,871,700 and the profession is expected to grow by 6% from 2016 to 2026. The majority of commercial vehicle operators work in the truck transportation business, and over 8% of truck drivers are self-employed.

Truck driving is an intensive job. Often, drivers will be required to be behind the wheel for up to 11 hours straight, after which they will have to perform extra duties such as loading/unloading cargo, maintaining their vehicle, and repairs.

Living mostly on the road comes with some health concerns. Truck drivers have one of the highest rate of injury due to the possibility of accidents. Truck drivers also frequently face issues with their legs, back, and hips from sitting for long periods of time. A large part of your training in CDL courses will focus on minimizing the risk of injuries.

Truck Driver Associations, Groups & Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

Commercial truck drivers can only be required to drive for up to 14 consecutive hours at a time, only after you have been off duty for at least 10 hours. These rules are meant to prevent driver fatigue and burnout which greatly increases the risk of accidents.
It depends on how quickly you finish your CDL course and how long it takes you to pass the exam. Most CDL programs can be completed within a few months at max. So starting from scratch, you could be commercially driving in as little as 2-3 months if you are diligent with your classes and exams.
Truck drivers spend most of their time on the road. While a driving-focused career offer freedom and opportunity to travel, long hours on the road can take a toll. As such, truck drivers tend to be independent people who want a non-traditional approach to life.

Most states require CDL applicants to be at least 21 years old. CLPs can be given to people as young as 18, though CLPs normally restrict interstate driving.

Truck drivers face risks from fatigue and musculoskeletal issues from sitting for long periods of time. Truck drivers also face a high risk of injury from accidents because they spend so much time on the road.
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Noel Griffith

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