How to Become a Truck Driver
Truck drivers haul food, automobiles, and other goods around the nation, making them an essential part of the supply chain. According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), truck drivers transported 11.8 billion tons of freight in 2019. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recorded more than 2 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers in 2020, who earned an average salary of $48,710.
There are many options for training to become a truck driver, including programs at community colleges, private driving schools, and transportation companies. Companies usually pay trucking professionals by the mile. You can begin working at age 21 with a high school diploma or equivalent and a commercial driver's license (CDL). However, one expert told us the job isn't for everyone.
What Does a Truck Driver Do?
Truck drivers operate massive motor vehicles, such as 16-wheel tractor-trailers and tankers. Some work as independent contractors, and others work for a commercial fleet or transportation company.
Becoming a truck driver can take a few weeks or a few months, and your training won't just include the rules of the road. You'll also learn about how to inspect your vehicle for safety, how to plan and manage long trips, and how to secure freight.
While you're often driving on your own, you also need customer service skills to do your job effectively. The work involves communicating with your dispatcher and with the customers who receive shipments.
Truck drivers work long shifts, up to 14 hours. According to the Occupational Information Network (O*Net), 84% of truck drivers reported working more than 40 hours a week. The majority also said they were frequently exposed to the elements and worked on strict deadlines.
Steps to Becoming a Truck Driver
Before considering the steps to becoming a truck driver, know that there is an age requirement. To legally operate commercial motor vehicles, you must be at least 21 years old.
However, you can obtain a learner's permit as early as age 18, and some federally run pilot programs and military programs allow younger drivers to work.
You must have a current driver's license in your state before earning a CDL. With a regular driver's license, you may even be able to start your career driving delivery trucks while studying for your CDL. U.S. driver's license fees cost between $20 and $90.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that most long-haul employers expect applicants to hold at least a high school diploma or GED credential. In most states, you can earn your GED in around four months for $80 to $140.
Community colleges, private truck driving schools, and trucking companies host truck driver training programs that qualify you to take the CDL exam. Some states have their own process of auditing and accrediting programs, so make sure you know your state's BMV or DMV regulations.
Driver training programs may last up to a year. Private schools and community college programs can range in cost from around $1,000 to $10,000.
Community colleges may provide financial aid to students in truck driving programs. Some may even offer a one-year degree related to truck driving or commercial freight business. This is not necessary to begin driving, but it can be a great option if you want to obtain a college degree.
Company-sponsored programs usually last four to six weeks and cost around $6,000. Most offer discounts, financing options, and sometimes full reimbursement to graduates who stay with the company for a set amount of time.
At a minimum, you need to have a CDL. CDLs come with different classifications (A, B, and C), depending on the size and weight of your vehicle. The CDL-A is the most versatile for drivers of large freight.
You also may need an endorsement code on your license. Endorsements indicate what you can legally transport and are essential for specialty vehicles like school buses and tankers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) explains the different classes and endorsement codes. Still, you should consult your state BMV or DMV, too.
Your CDL application, test, and license will incur a fee in many states' BMV or DMV systems. The most expensive fee will be the license fee, which ranges from $20 to $120.
Some truck driving schools offer job boards and career counseling. Truck-driving associations also help members connect with employers and career mentors. These associations include the ATA, Women in Trucking, and more.
Most companies require newly licensed employees to complete an in-house training program. These training sessions, often called driver finishing programs, introduce you to the vehicles, materials, and equipment relevant to the company. The program itself may last three to four weeks and involve a period of supervised driving.
Truck Driver Salary & Job Growth
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Projections Central
Top 10 States With the Highest Job Growth
- Arizona: 20%
- Guam: 20%
- Utah: 17.4%
- Virgin Islands: 16.7%
- Texas: 15.9%
- Georgia: 15.5%
- California: 15.2%
- South Carolina: 13.1%
Career Paths for Truck Drivers
Especially when starting, it's crucial to keep an impeccable driving record. Reckless driving can lead to losing your CDL. Also, work to establish a history of reliability with your employer and customers.
Building strong relationships early on in your career may help you land your next job or more desirable routes or shifts.
Sometimes companies need to transport extra-wide loads or hazardous materials. In these scenarios, companies are looking for the necessary endorsements and proven experience.
Drivers can also earn more for these jobs. For example, Payscale.com reports that the average annual income for tanker truck drivers is $64,810.
Industry associations put on conferences, events, and advocacy opportunities. Many have an ambassador program. Examples include North Carolina Trucking Association's Road Team Captains and Women in Trucking's Women to Watch list.
After working for a retail or transportation company, you may decide to work for yourself. Owner-operators are self-employed and have a truck or small fleet. It requires significant investment to own a fleet. Still, it can be rewarding to work for yourself, especially if you can embrace the lifestyle.
If you decide the hours, stress, and long treks aren't for you in the long run, a new career might suit you. You can translate your experience in route planning and customer service into non-driving jobs in logistics. Transportation and logistics companies sometimes hire experienced drivers into administrative roles.
Courses in Truck Driving Programs
Your training program will combine theoretical learning with practical driving experience. Typically, programs start in the classroom then build up to road driving, including:
- Classroom training
- Practice driving in a controlled environment (like a private lot)
- Supervised road driving
Here are the basic course types and topics training will cover:
- Learn regulations of license classifications and endorsements
- Study the rules of the road
- Prepare for your state exam
- Learn about transportation technology
- Identify mechanical issues
- Learn strategies for trip planning, logging miles, and map reading
Practical Driving Skills
- Gain skills and strategies for night driving and extreme conditions
- Practice truck control and maneuvering
- Conduct mechanical inspections
- Practice techniques for shifting, rigging, and speed management
Pro Tips on Becoming a Truck Driver
Editor's Note: We've edited these tips for clarity and length.
It takes students by surprise when they have to work 14-hour shifts for consecutive days, but it's possible, as long as you're within your hours of service.
The long hours go for everyone — not just cross-country trucking. Even when I was able to come home after my shift, it was just to sleep. That means when my daughter was little, I was on the road before she was up in the morning and returning home after her bedtime.
If you have a CDL, you'll never be out of the job. But a lot of our students still want a full year of college experience. Our curriculum focuses on gaining CDL licensure in the first semester and offers a pathway to a one-year degree in commercial freight entrepreneurship. In semester two, students can choose their own path and take different classes, like commercial freight business entrepreneurship, marketing, or HR.
There are for-profit programs out there, too, but the interest rates cost can be extreme. We're also working toward building a program that is eligible for financial aid, which can make a big difference for students.
Maybe you're drawn to a career in truck driving because of your love for automobiles. If this sounds like you, consider other career paths, such as becoming a mechanic or a mechanical engineer.
You can also explore your unique interests and career personality type by taking the free Lantern Career Interest Quiz. The quiz is designed to show you what potential careers match up to what you care most about.
Getting Financial Help with Your Truck Driving Program
Scholarships for Truck Driving Programs:
Women in Trucking Foundation Scholarship
- Who qualifies: Women training to advance their careers in trucking
- Amount: $1,000
- Deadline: You can apply for the spring or fall cycle
Federal Pell Grant
- Who qualifies: Determine your eligibility by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®)
- Amount: Varies; the maximum amount awarded in the 2021-2022 school year was $6,495
- Deadline: June 30, annually
Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act
- Who qualifies: People over the age of 18 who have lost their job
- Amount: Varies, potentially the entire cost of your program
- Important information: Work directly with your local American Job Center through CareerOneStop.org to determine what assistance is available and whether you qualify.
Company Sponsored Training Programs
Several companies run their own CDL training programs and hire graduates. In these programs, the company typically won't charge you any upfront costs. Instead, they will deduct small installments from your paycheck once they employ you. Also, after working with them for a set amount of time, they may partially or fully reimburse your tuition costs.
Here are a few of many major companies that sponsor training programs:
- Who qualifies: You should be at least 21 with a clean driving record. C.R. England lists more qualifications for employment.
- Amount: About 70% of your tuition costs if you stay with the company for a year. Military veterans are eligible for more coverage.
- Who qualifies: Individuals who commit to working for Swift for at least 26 months.
- Amount: Partial tuition, except for your license fees. Veterans qualify for a full scholarship.
- Who qualifies: You must have a commercial learner's permit.
- Amount: Tuition reimbursement after the first year of working for TMC.
FAQs on Earning Your Truck Driver Certification
Most states require renewal every four years, but make sure to consult your state's specific guidelines.
Some employers offer health and life insurance programs. Some don't. Do your homework on a company's policies.
Self-employed drivers may have to buy private insurance through state exchanges. In addition, The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) offers benefits plans for healthcare and other types of insurance.
You can expect to pay from $1,000 to $10,000. Most accredited programs fall in the $5,000-$8,000 range.
That depends on your employer. You could be paid per hour, per mile, per load or weight, or by salary. According to the BLS, long-haul truckers are typically paid by the mile. The employer sets per-mile rates, frequently ranging from $0.40 to $0.55 per mile.
The FMCSA requires drivers to limit their driving time to 14 straight hours and no more than 60 driving hours within seven days. Drivers are required to log their hours.
Resources for Truck Drivers
There's a wealth of information available online for current truckers or new drivers seeking their licenses. Learn more about federal and state regulations, safety issues, and ways to prevent illegal activities on the road:
American Trucking AssociationsThis organization advocates for federal licensing and safety regulations. Its news section includes relevant topics such as driver compensation, safety tips, and logging regulations.
DMV.orgPrivately owned, DMV.org lists CDL eligibility requirements, state-by-state CDL requirements, and free CDL practice tests.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety AdministrationAs part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the FMCSA regulates and provides safety oversight of CMVs. The website has details on regulations, registration, commercial driver licensing, and road safety.
FMCSA Electronic Logging Devices(ELD)Learn how to edit and annotate records of duty status, certify the records, and collect supporting documents.
Trucker CountryThe website lists the minimal Federal and State requirements to apply for licensing, how to comply with medical and physical regulations, details on self-certification, and a CDL Practice Test Center.
Truckers Against TraffickingThis organization works with corporations and nonprofits to educate drivers and law enforcement personnel on identifying and reporting human trafficking and risks.
Women in Trucking (WIT)WIT is a nonprofit that supports workforce diversity in the trucking industry and organizes networking and career growth resources.
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