At Transizion, we specialize in helping students enroll in the college of their dreams – but we want to help all young people as they transition to life as an adult, whether or not college is the right path for them. In this series of articles, we’re exploring a wide range of rewarding professions that don’t require four-year degrees.
Today’s post focuses on how to become a truck driver. We’ll cover education, working conditions, salary, job outlook, and more. Let’s get started.
What Do Truck Drivers Do?
There are over two million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers currently working in the United States. They transport goods in large trucks, often with a total weight (both the truck and the goods) exceeding 26,000 pounds. Many or most of them drive long-haul routes that keep them on the road for days or even weeks at a time.
The daily and weekly tasks of most truck drivers are as follows:
- Securing cargo for transport using chains, ropes, blocks, or covers
- Driving long distances between cities and/or states
- Reporting any incidents encountered on the road to dispatchers
- Inspecting their trucks and trailers before and after each trip
- Keeping a log of all working hours according to federal and state regulations
- Reporting serious mechanical problems and/or arranging for repairs
- Maintaining their trucks, trailers, and equipment
Many CDL drivers work with dispatchers while others plan their own routes, factoring in road restrictions and legally mandated rest periods. Some drivers work on a two-person team, with one driver resting in the back of the cab while the other drives. own their trucks and take trailers on assignment. Tens of thousands of CDL drivers own their trucks and make their own schedules, and many of them earn high six-figure salaries.
A CDL license also allows drivers to apply for local jobs, such as driving a trash truck for their city, so there are opportunities to change a long-haul job out for one that keeps you closer to home if you grow weary of being away from home for long stretches of time.
This job requires you to be behind the wheel for long hours, day after day, and all hours must be recorded in a logbook. Drivers work for up to fourteen hours at a time, though the law says that only eleven of those hours may be spent driving. They are required to spend at least ten hours off-duty between working periods. Drivers also are limited to how many hours they can spend behind the wheel each week; the law limits them to sixty hours in seven days or 70 hours in eight days. After that, they are required to take at least thirty-four hours off before driving again.
Most drivers work alone, and even those who work on teams are often driving alone while the other driver sleeps. Due to traffic accidents, tractor-trailer truck drivers have one of the highest rates of injuries and one of the highest rates of occupational fatalities of all occupations.
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How to Become a Truck Driver
If you want to become a heavy or tractor-trailer truck driver, you’ll need a commercial driver’s license (CDL). Some types of trucking jobs will require additional endorsements; most companies also require a high school diploma or GED.
Qualifications for obtaining a CDL vary by state, but you’ll need to pass both a knowledge test and a driving test. You may need additional endorsements, which we’ll describe in detail below. CDL drivers must maintain a clean driving record and pass a physical exam every two years.
CDL drivers are also subject to random testing for drug or alcohol abuse. The Department of Transportation’s Drug and Alcohol Testing Regulation does not authorize the use of Schedule I drugs, including marijuana, for any reason. Even if it’s legal in your state, CDL drivers are not permitted to use marijuana.
If you enjoy spending time alone and love spending long hours on the road, this job might be a good fit for you. Here are some other important qualities for truck drivers:
- Hand-eye coordination: You must coordinate your legs, hands, and eyes simultaneously to drive a truck safely.
- Reaction time: You must be able to read the situation around you and react quickly to potential hazards.
- Hearing ability: You must be able to pass hearing tests. Federal regulations require that a driver be able to hear a forced whisper in one ear at five feet away. Hearing aids are permitted.
- Visual ability: You must be able to pass vision tests. Federal regulations require a driver to have at least 20/40 vision with a 70-degree field of vision in each eye and the ability to distinguish the colors on a traffic light.
- Physical health: You will need to pass a physical exam every two years. Federal regulations do not allow people to become truck drivers if they have a medical condition, such as high blood pressure or epilepsy, which may interfere with their ability to operate a truck.
To prepare to test for your CDL, you’ll need to attend a private truck-driving school or community college program that will teach you how to maneuver these mammoth vehicles. You’ll also learn about the federal and state laws and regulations that govern interstate truck driving.
There are hundreds and hundreds of options when it comes to learning everything you’ll need to know in order to qualify for a commercial driver’s license, and you’ll want to search by location. But here are some examples of popular options for CDL training:
160 Driving Academy offers CDL training that can be completed in four 40-hour weeks, which is quicker than most other programs. Those hours include both classroom instruction, which takes up one-quarter of the four-week course, and behind-the-wheel training, which gives students the experience they need to land a job as a truck driver. They also offer additional training for endorsements, which we’ll discuss in detail below.
Fees vary by location, but the cost of schooling is about five thousand dollars on average. 160 works with trucking companies that will cover student tuition in full for students who accept jobs with them upon graduation. Students must be at least twenty-one years of age to qualify.
They have dozens and dozens of locations, with options available in nearly every state in the U.S. The driving academies have courses that students start out on before moving up to local roads and interstates.
Road Master is another popular option with over twenty training locations. Like 160, their program takes about one month to complete. They offer financial assistance and job placement assistance. The program includes:
- Performing Pre-Trip Inspections.
- Exploring map reading, trip planning, and understanding DOT laws.
- Becoming familiar with how to identify common tractor-trailer maintenance issues.
- Learning how to hook and unhook a 53ft trailer, back up, and make different kinds of turns.
Some companies offer paid CDL training, like an apprenticeship for truck drivers. Schneider is one such company. During their paid five-to-six-week CDL apprenticeship program, students learn everything that they need to know to begin work as a driver. The program includes:
- Paid transportation to a Schneider facility for training.
- Compensation for time spent in training
- Behind-the-wheel driving experience
- Classroom instruction
- Schneider-funded lodging and meals
For students who don’t live near a Schneider training facility, they also offer company-sponsored CDL training for people who wish to work for them as truck drivers. This includes:
- Assistance in finding a truck driving school to train for your CDL.
- Tuition costs are covered by Schneider
- Schneider-paid lodging (if applicable)
- A Schneider driving job upon successful completion of truck driving school
Some types of trucks require additional federal endorsements in addition to a commercial driver’s license. Testing for these endorsements may help you to secure more high-paying jobs in the field. The endorsements are as follows:
H Endorsement: Required for vehicles containing hazardous materials. This endorsement requires a written knowledge test.
N Endorsement: Permits you to operate tank vehicles. This endorsement requires an additional written knowledge test.
P Endorsement: Allows you to operate a passenger vehicle that carries over a specified number of passengers (the exact number may depend on your state). This endorsement requires written knowledge and road skills tests.
S Endorsement: Permits the operation of a school bus. This endorsement requires written knowledge and road skills tests. There are also additional application forms, fees, and background checks.
T Endorsement: Allows you to tow a double or triple trailer. This endorsement requires an additional knowledge test.
X Endorsement: Combination endorsement for HAZMAT and tank vehicles. This endorsement requires a written knowledge test.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Truck Driver?
It may take three to six months to complete training and earn your commercial driver’s license, but some programs can be completed in five to six weeks. There are even programs designed to be completed in four 40-hour weeks. After that, it’s just a matter of passing the exam.
After this, drivers usually receive several weeks of on-the-job training.
Career Outlook for Truck Drivers
The job outlook for truck drivers is excellent, with 259,900 openings for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers projected each year, on average, over the next few years. This doesn’t even include the other jobs that you could get with a commercial driver’s license, such as driving a bus or a garbage truck.
How Much Do Truck Drivers Make?
The median annual wage for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers in 2021 was $48,310, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which was higher than the national average of $45,760. The lowest-earning ten percent of heavy truck drivers earned less than $30,710, and the highest ten percent earned more than $72,730.
The top-paying states for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers are Washington, Alaska, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Illinois, and Massachusetts. In each of these states, the BLS average was above $53,000 per year.
Drivers are typically paid by how many miles they have driven, plus bonuses. Sign-on bonuses are common.
According to sites such as Glassdoor, Zippia, and Indeed, the current average annual salary for truck drivers is somewhere between $60,000 and $80,000. Some endorsements can qualify drivers to earn higher salaries, and many drivers who own their own trucks earn upwards of $300,000 per year.
Working as a Truck Driver: An Overview
If driving long hours appeals to you, becoming a truck driver is a promising career. The starting salary is good, and you could potentially make a very high salary later in your career by owning your own truck and working independently.
Here are some pros and cons to consider:
- Above average salary
- Potential to own your own business
- Long hours away from home
- High incidence of injury and illness
If you’re interested in this profession, consider contacting local truck drivers to ask about the possibility of interviewing or shadowing them to learn more about this line of work.
Stay tuned for upcoming articles on how to become a welder or a landscape architect.