Becoming a Truck Driver – What to Expect

How can you become a company driver since there is training involved? The two most common ways are by attending independent truck driving schools--which can be expensive but worth the investment and a few weeks of time—and trucking fleet schools, which provides the training on contract.

By John Aalborg

     Truck drivers are made, not born, although some are so proud of their careers they will tell you so. Yes, it is more than a job; it is a career and “professional driver” is the term used by the industry and drivers both. The public knows little about them but everyone knows that big rigs are everywhere, some running locally and many running state to state or coast to coast. But as we pass them on the highways we can’t look up inside the cabs so who are these truck driving men and women and what kind of trucking life do they lead? Why do they do it? Is it something you could do, or want to do? For a young person having doubts about a future of leading a humdrum life with a normal job, or an older person weary of such a life and feeling something is missing, the answer is probably YES! For others the lack of jobs available where they live is coupled with an unfulfilled desire for a little adventure.

Are You Eligible to Become a Truck Driver?

     Rocket science is not required, but it does take a capable person to do the job. Over the Road (OTR) drivers get a lot of respect, and female drivers also get plenty of respect from male truckers. Driving an eighteen-wheeler has to be learned, but modern tractors have power steering, air-brakes, air-conditioning, and everything else associated with smaller vehicles. Handling a big rig, in other words, can be mastered by persons of large or small stature, and husband and wife teams are especially prized by trucking companies. A non-driving spouse or significant other is also accepted.

     Truck drivers also appear in different styles, from that homeless look to military sharp but their social skills must switch to completely capable when at a loading dock and dealing with customers. Elderly, retired truck drivers would be surprised to find how things have changed since the so-called “good old days” where they had to change their own tires and spend too much time hunting for payphones. The modern trucking scene would be a dream to them, but don’t take that to mean the job is easy. One thing to keep in mind is that regardless what era an experienced truck driver is from, that person has a million stories to tell because each day in the life is different, and having a variety of experiences is a special thing in this otherwise monotonous world.

How Does One Apply?

     How can you become a company driver since there is training involved? The two most common ways are by attending independent truck driving schools--which can be expensive but worth the investment and a few weeks of time—and trucking fleet schools, which provides the training on contract. Besides learning to handle a huge truck, there is classroom study covering the rules of the road, how to deal with customers and various types of loads, and the government-required daily HOS log. Hours of Service rules are mandatory regulations which protect the public from tired truck drivers, and protect truck drivers from working too many hours. The rules deal with how many hours of driving time are allowed versus required off-duty/bunk time (at a motel or in the truck’s sleeper berth). The rules are too comprehensive to detail here, but they can be easily learned during the training period.

After School Training

     After your training, a graduate with a new company driving job typically gets assigned to a trainer. Depending on the fleet, this may last for a week or a few months. You go on the road as a working driver but with somebody you team with who has been-there-done-that. Trucking companies choose trainers not just for their accident-free records but for their patience and ability to get along well with others. This part of the training period is valuable because once on the road, the first few weeks point out all the things that no school can possibly cover. Like how to locate the best way in to the next customer’s location, for instance. A big semi can’t just take any road on the map because turns require a great deal of street space. Another thing a new professional driver learns is how to dodge rush hours in large cities and how to schedule off duty time versus the best times to enter urban areas. For example, when the HOS rules have your leeway with driving time restricted or you have a loading appointment to make, rush hour may have to be in the picture. Avoiding the beltway (where there will be traffic jams all around) might be key advice. Same as avoiding cutting through the heart of town in the morning--it means heavy traffic in and open road on the way out, and vice versa in the afternoon. There are many more little things to learn, and pride will put a smile on a new driver’s face as he or she becomes good at the job. Some newcomers pick things up fast, and some don’t feel like a pro until a year of experience has elapsed. How long does it take to become an airline pilot? Don’t even ask. Are they glad they stuck with it? No need to ask. Both truckers and pilots are a fraternity of pros.

How Are Truck Drivers Paid?

     Typically, truck drivers are paid by way of direct deposit every week (allowing you to use your debit card for instant access to your pay). Or, as is more often the case, the company you drive for issues you one of various forms of the Comdata Card. Comdata can handle truck driver pay, fuelling those two 150-gallon tanks, paying overweight fines, or anything else on the road which, in the old days, required finding a payphone first. Plus, with Comdata you can always check your personal balance online, either at a truck-stop with your own laptop, or with the communications system built into your tractor via a satellite connection which your employer provides. Professional drivers can also have a designated portion of pay sent to a spouse, or can vary the transfer personally online. In other words, a trucker always has money. How much money depends on the number of miles driven, loaded or unloaded. Some truckers make it easy on themselves and may earn less than others, but keep in mind that the number of hours allowed for driving by the HOS rules is the same for everyone. How much a beginner is paid per mile can be quite lucrative, and recruiting ads usually spell out how much each company is willing to risk on the inexperienced. A quick phone call to numbers provided in these advertisements can give a recruit plenty of other information along with answers to pay questions. For persons thinking about becoming a professional driver, the first phone call will always find a company representative happy to clue you in on everything you want to know. Trucking is a fraternity, a world of its own.

What is the Reality of Trucking?

     No career choice is 100 percent perfect. And trucking is no exception though what one driver finds to be a drawback, another will find to be a plus. Only you will know what your tolerance level is for all the nuances that accompany the kind of unique career trucking offers.

     First, truck drivers must have the ability to schedule themselves. Nobody will tell you that your hours are nine to five and your lunch break is at noon. Nobody will be there to tell you that if your appointment to unload is at 8:00 AM you should probably get back on the road early and your rig near or at the destination before rush hour. If you are in a situation where you are going to run out of allowable driving hours for the day, you must be able to figure out when and where you can park, and in time.

     A truck driver must also be a person in control of himself. As in all customer service jobs, you’ll encounter people who may be rude, or company employees less than enthused to see you pull in with another truck they must unload. Occasionally a shipper may require you to move your rig out into the hot sun while you secure your new load to make room for another incoming rig, and as a driver, you must handle every situation with courtesy. You are the face of the company you are driving for and good customer service is always a requirement. It will help to have a sense of humor from time-to-time, as well. If a shipper remarks that the pet dog you have in your cab is ugly (but he is smiling while he says it), that shipper just trying to be funny or friendly. A trucker, in other words, must be patient and mature.

Away From Home & Getting Home

     Each truck fleet tries to guarantee how often an OTR driver can be routed home but getting home nightly isn’t an option for Over the Road drivers (regional or local driving jobs offer different options). Some love it while some merely tolerate it. Older drivers often like to say that absence makes the heart grow fonder and saves marriages. It depends on the individual and how independent that person has become by the time she or he is old enough to get a CDL (Commercial Driver License).

     While away from home, truck drivers vary regarding how they want to spend off-duty time each day or night. Personal laundry is taken care of at truck-stop Laundromats, and shower rooms with clean towels are also available at truck stops. There are plenty of restaurants along the roadways that accommodate drivers and their rigs, but the experienced driver will tell you to limit the amount of funds you’re spending on eating out. We all know how pricey that can get at three meals a day. Rather, your truck’s sleeper will be equipped with what you need to eat from your “home on wheels.” With a microwave and a 12-volt fridge, you can make a plethora of meals and snacks that are far easier on the wallet. Same goes with motel rooms—sometimes during certain layovers, companies pay for rooms. But typically, this is an expense that you would have to cover. And while, truckers are well paid and some opt for this luxury, most drivers opt to stay in their sleeper berths for the expense savings.

     Either way, being away from home, sometimes for weeks at a time, is part of the deal. There are drivers who simply deal with it as a necessary evil to having a good and fruitful career. Depending on life circumstances, there are a lot of drivers who very much enjoy this aspect of the long-haul trucker life.                 

     If a newcomer is determined to be part of the club and sticks out the first months of this independent kind of life, he or she soon finds that beyond getting used to living on the road, trucking becomes a desired, happy, and proud way of life. And unlike some more normal jobs, if a driver has a problem with his company or with the unit he has been assigned the problem can be aired out and worked out. Drivers are difficult to replace and trucking companies like to keep the drivers they know.

     Many drivers quickly learn how much better trucking is than humdrum, normal jobs. The pros have already learned that life on the road is usually more difficult than showing up at a desk or counter job, but the pay is good, the advantages offset the difficulties, and those weekends at home can be wonderful. With a run-of-the-mill day job, getting home at the end of every day can lose that wonderfulness; but for a driver not knowing what his or her next destination is, what the load will be and what sights will be seen, well, it’s all worth the hard work and patience. Plus, how can you beat getting paid to travel?