The Open Road
The lure of driving a truck over-the-road has captured the imaginations of men and women for years. There’s something very appealing to being “out there”, on your own with no one looking over your shoulder, seeing the country, and, being paid to do it. As one might imagine, however, there’s a bit more to it than just jumping into a truck and heading down the road.
In this article, we’ll explore some important things to consider before jumping into the “trucking” life and getting your own Driving Job. We’ll also look at the ways most people enter the trucking business, and finally we’ll take a peek at what life is like on-the-road.
Trucking Industry Deregulation
One of the first things to be aware of is that the trucking industry was deregulated in 1980. What this could mean to a truck driver is that for most driving positions, the driver is usually required to drive at irregular and inconvenient times. One may be asked to transport a load 400 miles away with a 3 pm delivery followed by another load that has a 2 am pick-up and delivers 500 miles away at 12 pm. The driver is supposed to sleep during a 10 hour break between the 3 pm delivery and the 2 am pick-up. Those over-night runs have always been the most difficult for me.
Stress to the Family
Another serious consideration before jumping into a driving job is one’s family life. Trucking involves working many long and irregular hours. If you get lucky and land a “local” job you will usually be home every day or every night but the work schedule seldom coincides with your family’s schedule. Some common schedules: 3am to 2pm or 4pm to 2am. If your spouse needs help getting the kids ready for school or putting dinner on the table then driving a truck is probably not the best option for you.
Driving over-the-road presents a completely different set of family issues. Most over-the-road drivers are gone for weeks at a time with two – four weeks being the most common. I’ve talked to some drivers who choose to stay out, on-the-road, for six months or longer. Many drivers are single and you commonly see drivers who bring their spouse along. Other truck drivers have managed to find positions that allow them to be home most weekends. There are driving jobs available that fit into every schedule imaginable. The choicest jobs usually require experience. Driving over-the-road is the most common route to “paying the dues” and qualifying for the better jobs. Rest assured there is a driver job out there for you. You’ll just need to find it.
If one’s family life is already on shaky ground, trucking probably isn’t the best choice for a career. I’m sure you can imagine some of the things that may happens when a spouse is regularly gone for weeks at a time. Children tend to become a bit unruly with reduced supervision, the workload for the spouse hat home doubles, and then there’s the infidelity issue.
Staying healthy on the road – is it possible?
Another problem that comes with life on the road and a driving job is that living in a truck and staying out for weeks at a time makes living a healthy lifestyle very difficult. First off, you can’t pull that 70+ foot long rig into just any parking lot that you want to. Well, actually, it’s not too difficult to pull into most parking lots. The problems start when you need to get that truck back out. That, though, is a whole different discussion.
There are, of course, those people who are exceptions to every situation but for most of us, eating right, getting proper exercise, and sleeping on a regular schedule are all difficult at best.
The vast majority of truck stop food is high in calories and carbs, fried, and “freshness” is only a passing consideration. Many of the truck stop restaurants have buffets and what you’ll usually find is food that, in quality, it’s normally a few notches what most would consider “good quality” food.
Of course, not every truck stop diner is bad. Two notable exceptions are the TTT truck stop in Tucson, AZ just off of I-10. The diner here is first rate. In fact, many Tucson locals eat here, which to me, is always a good sign! The truck stop itself is quite dirty, dusty, and unkempt. Don’t let that stop you from trying out the diner though! Next is Johnson’s Corner truck stop in Johnstown, CO. Johnson’s Corner is located on I-25 between Denver and Fort Collins. I’d say “don’t miss the cinnamon rolls or giant burrito” but that would be irresponsible of me when I’m talking about healthy eating. So, I won’t mention it!
As far as eating right and staying healthy on the road, here’s the deal; it’s all about choices. No one forces us to eat at the buffet or fast food every day. If you do choose to visit the buffet every day, it’ll be only a matter of time before you’ll need to change your CB Handle to Shamoo.
Almost every driver who’s concerned with eating right on the road carries a cooler and makes regular stops at Wal-Mart or some other grocery store. They’ll eat out occasionally but for the most part they eat out of the truck. This helps conserve the waist line and saves money.
Ok, I’ve been duly warned of some major considerations, now what?
Getting your Commercial Driver's License
Basically, there are two paths that one can take. The first is attending a formal driving school of some sort, and there are several options to consider. The second path is to just go down and pass the tests (written and driving) and get your CDL. Yes, you don’t even need to go to school to get a CDL, but…
Formal Driver Education
This is the route that I chose for myself. Most decently sized cities have commercial driving schools that typically cost anywhere between $2000 on the low end and $7000 on the high end. I paid $4500. The courses vary in length but generally average three - four weeks long. While in school you’ll learn state and federal laws, how to do pre-trip inspections on a truck, how to maintain the daily driver’s log, and you’ll learn everything required to pass the written test. You’ll be driving an 18-wheeler. The school I attended, Roadmaster, had 4-5 people in the truck at a time. The instructor always rode in the passenger seat with the students who weren’t driving sat on the bunk in the sleeper. Each student would typically drive between 20-30 minutes and then switch off with another student. By the end of the course we each had about 8 hours behind the wheel.
Your local community college or tech-school may also offer a truck driving course. These are generally much cheaper than private schools, typically between $800 and $2000. The courses at community colleges tend to be longer in duration and, from what I’ve heard and read, more in depth. You’ll probably get much more time behind the wheel at these schools as well.
Not attending a formal school
There are actually no rules that say you have to attend a school to obtain your CDL, at least not yet. If you wanted to, you could get the study manual from your local DMV office to study. When you feel ready, head on down and take the test. The next step would be to borrow or rent a truck to take the driving test in.
There is a catch! Assuming you manage to take and pass the written test on your own (this isn’t rocket science) AND pass the driving test you’ll be issued a shiny new Commercial Driver’s License. But, here’s the situation, most companies won’t hire you. Almost all of the large national companies require some type of formal education before they’ll hire someone. Still others want a driver who’s graduated from a school certified by PTDI – Professional Truck Driver Institute. As I said, I went to Roadmaster in Tampa, FL, which isn’t a PTDI certified school. I’ve never had an issue finding a driving job so I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on going to a PTDI school. In fact, there are NO PTDI schools in Florida, or many other states for that matter.
So, even though there’s sometimes a significant cost involved, if you have your heart set on becoming a truck driver I’d recommend attending a formal driving program.
A growing number of trucking companies are taking driver training “in-house”. These companies will transport prospective employees to their training facilities, put them through the school, and upon successful completion, offer a job. There is a catch though. (You knew there would be, right?) Someone going through an in-house system is generally contracted to stay employed for a year or more. If the employee leaves before their contract is up, they’ll have to reimburse the company for the costs of the in-house school – which can be steep. If you read through some of the online trucking forums you’ll see many drivers recommending against this option because you’re bound to one company for a year. I don’t think that that’s a big deal. In fact, if I were to go into trucking today, knowing what I know now, this is exactly the route that I’d take. No option is right for everyone. The best thing to do is to start making calls and asking questions; more on that later.
Selecting a company to work for
There’s a shortage truck drivers in America. In some sectors, the shortage is severe. Because of this, the hiring process for trucking is different than for other industries. Typically, if someone has a reasonably clean record (driving and criminal) they’ll have the luxury of picking from several job offers. Broadly speaking, trucking jobs can be broken down into two categories: Jobs that require experience and those that don’t. I’m concentrating here on jobs that require no experience.
Almost every commercial driving school offers job placement services. In fact, I wouldn’t attend a school that didn’t offer job placement. However, I’d suggest that you don’t rely solely on the placement department to find your job. There is usually a core group of trucking companies that call on trucking schools to find new employees. Trucking companies, along with the placement folks at the schools, funnel thousands of drivers into “starter” driver positions. You’ll hear these companies referred to as “driver mills”. There are also many companies that don’t recruit through the schools.
Instead of relying on the placement office, I’d recommend several things. First, start spending time on some of the online trucking forums. Two of the best are: www.classadrivers.com and www.thetruckersreport.com. Read through the driver’s posts and ask questions of your own. You’re going to find that certain companies are named more often than others as either “good” or "bad”. Take these comments with a grain of salt. Remember, for every one person who takes time to post a comment, (and it’s far more common for bad things to be posted than good) there are hundreds who never say a word.
Unless you live way off the beaten path, there’s probably a truck stop somewhere close to your home. I’d suggest going down there, or to several if there’s more than one, and talk to some drivers one-on-one while they’re fueling up their trucks. Explain that you’re considering getting into trucking and that you’re trying to get a few questions answered. Be prepared with a list of questions. Some drivers will be more than happy to talk to you. Some drivers won’t give you the time of day. Don’t be offended if this happens. It’s just the way it is out there. By the way, I’d highly suggest sticking around the fuel island to ask your questions. Don’t venture out onto the truck parking area and start walking up to drivers that you see sitting in their trucks. We drivers get accosted on a daily basis by all manner of characters while on the road. The defense mechanisms are at their strongest when we’re in our trucks sitting in a truck stop. You need to remember this. The truck (technically it’s called a tractor) is the driver’s work place, home, and it’s their refuge. They tend to closely protect it. Again, it’s just the way it is.
At most truck stops there are usually two entrances. The front entrance, where non-truck drivers enter and there’s a back entrance near the fuel island (truckers get fuel, everyone else gets gas) for the truckers. Somewhere near the truck driver entrance is going to be a magazine rack with lots of FREE publications. These magazines are full of recruiting ads. Grab one of each! The ads sometimes specify driver’s requirements and sometimes they don’t. I’d call every company listed and start building a simple spreadsheet. Keep a list of every company you contact and categorize them as potential employers and non-potentials.
It’s always a good idea to have a list of questions ready when calling recruiters. So, here’s a list. (This list is not all-inclusive. A much more exhaustive list of questions, written by Mike & Vicki Simons, can be found here.)
- Do you take new drivers? (How much experience is
- Am I in your hiring area?
- Do you require certain credentials of the CDL
school? (See “Formal Driver Education” above)
- How long has the company been in existence?
- Are your driver managers/dispatchers former
- What credentials do you require? (HazMat, Tanker, TWIC, etc.)
- What kind of trailers/freight do they haul?
(flatbed, dry-van, refrigerated, tanker, etc.)
- Where will orientation be held?
- How will I get to orientation? (Most – not all,
- How much will I be paid at orientation?
- How long will orientation be?
- Will my trainer and I be driving as a team?
- How long will I be with my trainer?
- What is the pay scale during training?
- What is the pay once I go solo?
- What will my operating area be? Are there regional opportunities available?
- How long am I required to stay out before
- If I’m required to sit because of slow freight,
how long must I sit before extra pay kicks in?
- How much time are the shippers and consignees
given before I’m entitled to detention pay?
- How does the company communicate with the driver
on the road?
- What benefits are available? How much does the insurance cost?
The list above represents the key questions to ask in your initial search. If you like what you hear, put that company on your list of “potentials”. If not, put them in the non-candidate column. Once satisfied with the quantity of candidates, it’s then time to go back and do a more thorough investigation. That’s where The Simons’ list will come in handy.
Once you’ve narrowed your search to a few companies, the next step is to submit an initial application. Within a few days, if the company likes what they see, you’ll likely receive a “pre-hire”. Don’t get overly excited about this. These are handed out quite freely and aren’t worth much. What a pre-hire means is that you’ve met their initial set of qualifications and they’re interested in taking you to the next step. This is where they do background and employment checks, credit checks, DMV checks, and other investigations that they deem necessary. This process usually takes from between two days and two weeks. This is usually completed within a week.
So, after waiting by the phone for a certain period of time you get the call. It’s the recruiter on the line and they’re telling you that you’re all set, “when do you want to come to orientation”? Hold on there, buster! Like before, don’t get overly excited. You’re certainly much further along than you were with that pre-hire, but you’re not there yet. You’re not yet IN. They’re offering to bring you to orientation – great, but you still have some hurdles to go over. There have been many people who’ve gone off to orientation knowing in their heart that they have a new job only to find themselves on a bus a few days later, headed back home.
What happens is that for some reason that doesn’t make much sense to me, a lot of companies feel that it’s cheaper for them to bus people to orientation and then do the in-depth background investigations. Sometimes, those background checks turn up things that disqualify the driver from employment. Unfortunately, in these situations, there’s not much the driver can do and most don’t know enough to ask the proper questions beforehand. So, add this to the list above: Will all background checks be completed BEFORE I’m brought to orientation?
In addition to the final background checks, the new driver has to pass a physical. Fail this and you’ll find yourself back on the bus. Other areas that the driver needs to demonstrate knowledge of are log books, hours-of-service rules, trip planning, etc. Then there’s the dreaded road test. These are usually given by someone in the safety department. It’s just you and him (or her) in the truck and they’re watching your every move, listening to your every word. The person giving the road test will probably engage you in some small talk in an attempt to calm your nerves. They know that you’re probably more nervous than a Chihuahua in a rocking chair factory. Even for experienced drivers, this can be a nerve wracking experience. I’m not trying to frighten anyone here. Really! I’m not. But, if you’re like most people, it’ll be one of the most stressful things you do on your path to a driving job. You’re going to have to find a way to get through it. Thousands of other drivers have done it before you. The good news is that you’ll have already passed a road test in CDL school or at the DMV so it won’t be a completely new experience.
Once you complete orientation they’ll assign you to your trainer. This can be either a great experience for you, or it can be hell. I’d really try to get as much information as possible from the various forums, the recruiter, and any other driver you can find who works there as to what you can expect during training at that company.
My start in trucking
I started my first driving job with May Trucking out of Salem, OR. My orientation was in Pensacola, FL. (I live in Tampa). The trainer that they assigned me to only drove the 11 western states so I needed to get to the west coast somehow. Orientation ended on Friday and they had another driver coming in to pick up a trailer at the yard but he wasn’t due there until Monday. They put me up in a hotel and gave me a tractor to drive for the weekend. When the driver showed up on Monday, I loaded my bags into the truck and off we went. I rode shotgun for 2700 miles, all the way to Portland, Oregon to meet my trainer. Credit: PAAS Website
The driver that I was riding with wasn’t a designated trainer so I couldn’t drive at all. I rode shotgun the entire way. By the way, this was at the very end of December. The trailer that the driver had picked up before meeting me was only ½ full – ½ full of PAAS Easter Egg Coloring Kits. Those weigh next to nothing and we didn’t even have a full trailer of them.
There’s this state up along the northern edge of the United States. It’s called Wyoming. Wyoming is known for various things but one thing that it’s especially known for, at least as far as truckers are concerned, is wind. Lots of WIND. STRONG WIND!
We’re rolling down I-80, coming into Cheyenne, WY from the east and we get to this huge reader board stretching across the freeway, similar to the one shown here. The Sign says: Light loads Highly Encouraged to Pull Over, 75 mph wind gusts. Guess what, we pulled over. By about noon the next day the wind had died down a little bit – to about 50 mph guests. There was a long line of trucks headed west out of Cheyenne and we got in line hoping that we could sneak through. We made it but it was some ride. Those Easter egg kits only weighed about 3500 pounds total. The wind would kick the trailer out about 25-30 degrees and if you happened to be looking at the side mirror at the time, all you saw was the wall of the trailer. Not that you could see anything anyway. The snow was blowing horizontally across the road and the only way anyone could be sure they were staying on the road was by the tail lights of the truck in front of you and the snow markers that line the road. We just hoped that the truck in front of us was “staying on the road” and that the one in front of him was staying on the road and…
It is an adventure out there, driving a truck. You run into all kinds of weather, people, and situations. The one thing that you’ll develop, if you don’t already have it, is an ability to be flexible. If you can’t learn that then your trucking career will be short.
There’s probably never been a better time to start a career driving a truck as far as opportunity is concerned. You’ll hear “old-timers” reminisce about the good old’ days when the money was better and drivers took care of their own. That’s probably all true but for many, trucking still offers a unique way of life, a steady pay check, and a chance to see places that they’d probably never get a chance to see. Hopefully this article will help you make the best of your start in the trucking industry if that’s what you choose to do.