Truckers are a vital part of the modern economy. American roadways are filled with qualified truck drivers who transport things across the country, ensuring packages, groceries, machinery, and other goods get to where they need to go.
If you feel at home on the open road, driving can be a well paying job that doesn’t require a lot of schooling and provides benefits even for new workers.
In this article, we’re offering a step-by-step guide on how to become a truck driver. We’ll show you what it takes to get your commercial driver’s license (also known as a CDL license) and where to find truck driving jobs so you can start your career as a truck driver sooner than later.
How to Become a Truck Driver
While there are tons of different trucking jobs, they tend to fall into two major categories — delivery truck driving and tractor-trailer truck driving. Delivery truck drivers can work for companies like UPS, Amazon, FedEx, USPS, or local delivery businesses. For this type of work, drivers will need some training to operate the vehicle, but it often doesn’t require Class A certification needed to operate a full semi-truck. (More on that below.)
As for the state of the trucking industry, there have been many stories suggesting that it’s under threat. With Silicon Valley companies experimenting with self-driving cars and trucks, there’s a growing sense that there’s no future for long-haul truckers.
At the same time, self-driving technology is far from being implemented nationwide. The software isn’t reliable enough yet, and the country’s infrastructure is not set up to support self-driving trucks.
What’s more, over the past decade companies such as Amazon and other online retailers have exponentially increased the number of items that need to be shipped. The on-demand economy has made logistics essential, and as long as packages need to be delivered, there will be jobs for truckers.
According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the trucking industry is expected to grow 6% between 2016 and 2026, about the standard rate of growth across other American industries.
The pay is decent, too. According to the same report, the median income for a tractor-trailer driver is a bit over $43,000 annually. For a delivery truck driver, that number is closer to $30,000 annually.
Different Types of Driving
When learning how to become a truck driver, it’s important to understand the different types of driving jobs that are available. Some of these are distinguished by the type of truck needed, others by the distance traveled, and others still by the kind of cargo you’re carrying.
Delivery drivers will operate larger trucks that may require a special license depending on the state, but often won’t require extended training like you might need for driving a tractor-trailer or heavy truck. These delivery driver jobs can have long shifts, but they tend to be located locally and let you sleep in your bed every night.
Long-haul drivers operate tractor-trailers, sometimes called big rigs or semis. These vehicles are quite large, often 18-wheeled trucks that can transport massive quantities of cargo. They require specialized training and licensing to operate. The “long haul” part of the name refers to the distance these drivers go — many deliveries require drivers to cross state lines or go any number of places across the country.
Some tractor-trailer drivers insist on short trips only. These types of truck drivers are referred to as short-haul drivers. These jobs may not pay as well, but they’ll keep you closer to family and the hours won’t be as demanding.
HAZMAT drivers — drivers who haul hazardous materials — require even more special training, but can earn extra money for taking on the risk. Likewise, drivers certified in handling wide loads or massive equipment can earn more money, but these jobs often require special training and a lot of experience.
Be Honest With Yourself About Hours and Lifestyle
Truck driving can be an attractive career because it doesn’t require a lot of schooling and the starting pay rates are good, often with benefits even for entry-level drivers. If you go through a trucking school and pass your CDL test, it’s usually easy to find work right away. You’ll also have some flexibility about the type of driving you do.
That said, days can be grueling and the hours are long. Long-haul truck drivers can be on the road up to 14 hours a day, although there are laws in place to prevent drivers from working too many hours consecutively.
Tight deadlines and gridlock can cause stress trying to hit delivery times, so think about that when considering a truck driving career. You can earn more money by working with hazardous materials, but there’s risk associated with that. Before you dive into truck driving, it’s important to understand the stresses of the job and determine if it’s something you feel comfortable taking on.
Getting Trained and Licensed
In the United States, a CDL is usually classified as either a Class A or Class B license. The differences between these licenses is usually defined by the weight of the vehicle you want to operate. (Read a state-by-state guide to license types via AAA.)
To get your CDL, you’ll most likely need to enroll in trucking school and then pass a two-part test. Here is the best way to go about that:
Meet School Requirements
In the vast majority of states, you have to be 21 or older to qualify for a CDL. You also have to be legally eligible to work in the United States as well as in your state.
For many schools, you’ll also need to have a clean driving record. Most schools and employers won’t care if you have a few parking tickets or a minor moving violation, but major offenses like reckless driving or DUI can be disqualifying for many companies. Schools will not want to take on students who won’t get hired, and many will turn you down if your driving record has serious incidents.
Some schools want you to have a high school diploma or GED, but most won’t list that as a requirement.
Attend Truck Driving School
Look up nearby trucking schools to see if you can enroll and get certified. The best schools will give you classroom lessons and on-road practice hours, and most will offer CDL training for HAZMAT driving or other specialized work.
Tuition prices will vary, but many schools offer tuition assistance or offer to take a small percentage of your annual salary if they successfully place you in a job.
The programs vary in length. Some intensive program can be done in as little as 30 days while others offer more flexible classes on nights and weekends, which can last up to a year.
Pass the Written Test and Driving Skills Test
Most states will have a two-part CDL exam you need to pass to get your license, usually run by your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The first part will be a written test, which will examine your knowledge of safety rules and regulations, both for federal and state-specific laws.
The driving test will get you out on the road. The road skills test won’t be long, but it will allow you to showcase your competence while driving with a state-licensed examiner.
Pass the FMCSA Exam
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has an exam that you need to pass to operate commercial vehicles. It includes both a written portion and an on-road portion. The written portion is a one-time test, and once you pass it, you’re certified for life. The on-road portion must be retaken every two years to ensure that you’re maintaining safe driving practices.
Finding a Job
Most training programs and trucking schools offer job placement assistance for people who enroll in the courses. Many have an affiliation with the American Trucking Association, and will have relationships with recruiters to make sure you’re given a great shot at finding a job after you complete the course and pass your CDL test.
That’s one of the main benefits of trucking schools — they’ve spent years connecting trucking companies with new drivers, and will make sure you find work for a commercial truck company that aligns with your experience, certification, and desired hours.
If you’re an experienced driver, trucking jobs can be found on job boards or simply by word of mouth. If you’re trained and experienced, odds are a company will want to hire you.
Working on the Move
If you feel comfortable behind the wheel and love being on the open road, truck driving could be a great career choice. By following along with this article, you should have a good idea on how to become a truck driver and whether or not it’s something you’re interested in. There’s still a strong demand for people who can safely operate big-rig trucks, and if you’re licensed, you can start out with a well-paying job after only a month of training.