Life on the open road

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Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles on choosing truck driving as a career. Part one: Trucking vs. college: Knowing which is right for you

Have you ever been driving down a highway only to be passed by a hulking 18-wheeler? Have you secretly wondered what it would be like to drive across the country and get paid to do so? If you are thinking about becoming a full-time trucker then look no further. In this article we will tell you exactly what steps to take to become a truck driver. (If you are not sure, read: Trucking vs. college: Knowing which is right for you)

You probably already know what a truck driver does for a living, but you may be wondering how exactly the occupation operates. There are a number of career paths that someone who wants to drive 18-wheelers can take. Some drivers operate independently as contractors for hire, while others work for a specific trucking company. Truck drivers are always in high demand because they are the primary way for consumer goods to be transported across the United States.

Before we continue there are some things you should know about a career driving an 18- wheeler. The first thing to consider is that driving a truck is nothing like driving any other vehicle. Semi trucks have air brakes, multiple gears in the transmission and much more sensitive handling. All truck drivers have to obtain a Commercial Driving License (CDL) in their state of residence in order to be able to work as a driver. We will cover how to get a CDL in multiple states, but most will require you to take some classes covering the systems in a truck, how to properly load your vehicle, and how to navigate narrow streets and pathways. Drivers will also have to learn how to make some basic repairs to their trucks in case of an emergency. Lastly, drivers have to be able to handle being on the road for days at a time. Those who struggle to stay awake on the road should definitely look for alternative career options. However, if you love long road trips and can handle an inconsistent sleep schedule then this might be the career for you. Before we move on to discussing on to obtain a CDL, here is a quick review of all you need to know about the truck driving profession.

Truck driving profession review

  • Essential Skills: Ability to maneuver large semi-trucks, knowledge of truck repair, knack for plotting routes to minimize trip time, adaptability to deal with delays and traffic jams, ability to stay up for long periods of time, promptness, good communication skills when talking to clients or other truckers.
  • Salary: According to Glassdoor.com, truck drivers earn an average income of $43,464 per year. Salary will vary by company and state.
  • Job Prospects: According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 1,797,700 trucking jobsas recently as 2014. Between 2014-2024 there is expected to be a five percent increase in available trucking jobs. Truck drivers are the main method many companies use to transport their products, so it is very easy to find a job once you have your commercial driving license.

How to become a truck driver

Before getting into the statewide differences in becoming a truck driver, here is a basic career path that you can likely expect in any state. Generally, to become a truck driver you will need to:

  • Review the qualifications to become a driver in your state. In general, you will likely need to have graduated from high school (or have a GED), be at least 21 years of age, and have a clean driving record. Minor traffic violations and parking tickets will likely be acceptable, but consistent violations or major violations (DUIs, Reckless Driving, etc.) will likely stop you from getting hired. In most states, it is also required that you have at least 1 year of proven experience driving regular automobiles before applying to be a trucker.
  • Get a Commercial Driving Manual. This booklet will contain information on getting your Commercial Driving License, fees associated with your CDL, classes you need to take, and relevant traffic laws in your state. You can pick up one of these booklets at your local DMV for free. In some states, there may be online copies available as well.
  • Go to truck driving school. You will need to satisfy different education requirements based on your state, but every state requires you to go to at least some trucking school. Programs can range in length from 30 days to over a year, but they will all likely cover similar subjects. You will learn about the state's traffic laws, your truck’s handling and systems, and how to best get hired as a trucker. Most of these schools also offer real driving practice with a licensed professional to help you starting out. The best school for you will depend on a lot of factors, so you will likely have to research yourself.
  • Take the licensing exam. In order to obtain a CDL you must pass a two-part exam featuring a written and driving portion. The written portion will contain questions testing your knowledge of laws and regulations, while the driving portion will be similar to the driving test you have to take to get a regular driver's license. These tests are very serious so you should prepare as much as possible before taking them. There is no limit on how many times you can take the tests, but repeatedly failing will just be wasting your time and your examiner's.
  • Pass the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulation (FMCSR) exam. This is the federal exam that must be passed in order to operate an 18-wheeler in the United States. The test includes a written portion on federal laws and regulations, as well as some short hearing and vision tests. No matter what state you are in you will have to pass this exam to get your CDL.
  • Find a trucking job. Most trucking schools will have some type of job placement services that you can utilize. If you are hired by a trucking company you will likely have to attend an orientation for new hires that goes over company policies and procedures. Most companies also have their own exams that you must pass before you can drive under the company banner. Lastly, your first few drives will be supervised by a senior trucker in the company who will show you how to fill out paperwork, how to find the best routes, etc. After a few months of supervision, you will be ready to ride on your own. You could alternatively start your own independent trucking company (with you as the only driver). This may seem attractive as you'd be your own boss, but keep in mind you would have to balance your own accounts and scrounge up your own contracts. It would be advisable to find a trucking company to work for starting out.

Licensing

  • All truck drivers have to get a CDL to work. However, there are different classes of CDL licenses that you should be aware of. Make sure you know which license you need for your preferred driving job. Below is a brief explanation of each license.
  • Class A License: This class of license is required for anyone towing a vehicle weighing more than 10,000 pounds, or anyone driving a vehicle and trailer with a combined weight in excess of 26,001 pounds provided that the trailer weighs more than 10,000 pounds.
  • Class B License: This class of license is required to drive vehicles that weigh more than 26,001 pounds or when towing a vehicle that weighs less than 10,000 pounds.
  • Class C License: This license is required to drive large passenger vehicles or vehicles carrying hazardous materials. Any vehicle that does not fall under the other two licenses is covered by the Class C license.
  • Endorsements: Based on the license you need to acquire, you may have to get endorsements. Endorsements are acknowledgements that a license holder has been certified to drive a certain vehicle type. There are endorsements for driving school buses, tank vehicles, multiple trailers, passenger vehicles, hazardous materials vehicles and hazardous materials/tank vehicle combinations. In order to gain endorsements you need to pass certain tests containing writing and practical portions. Some jobs may require you to have a certain license and a certain endorsement.

Schooling

Truck driving degrees can be earned at many different types of schools. Some truck driving schools specialize in certain types of vehicles or license classes. Truck driving degrees are also offered at some community colleges or trade schools. In some cases, trucking companies will offer their own training programs for potential drivers. What type of school you choose will depend on a number of factors. Below is a list of some classes and factors that you should look for in a potential school:

  • Vehicle Systems: As a truck driver you will be responsible for maintaining and repairing your vehicle. To do this you need to know the ins and outs of the systems involved in the operation of your vehicle. A good trucking program will have classes covering these systems and how you can make small repairs to them when necessary. You will also be required to do pre- and post-trip inspections to make sure your vehicle is running properly.
  • Trip Planning: One of the most important aspects of a trucker's job is being able to plan his or her routes. If you take trucking courses locally they should cover some basic trip planning tips, and if you're lucky your instructors will tell you which roads they prefer themselves.
  • Air Brakes and Shifting: Driving a semi-truck is very different from driving a normal automobile. Semi-trucks have multiple gears for different inclines, and air brakes operate differently from normal brake systems. You will need knowledge on these differences before getting behind the wheel.
  • Coupling: Coupling is the process of attaching your cab to your trailer. You will need to learn how to properly couple, and your trucking school should cover this important technique thoroughly.
  • Loading and Securing Cargo: Truckers are often carrying extremely heavy loads on their drives. Improperly secured cargo could lead to cargo damage or even serious injury. You should gain knowledge on the practice of loading cargo and get some supervised practice under professionals.
  • Driving Practice: Anyone who has learned to drive a vehicle will know that learning about it in a classroom and actually driving it are very different things. It is imperative that your trucking degree involves a large amount of time behind the wheel of a semi-truck. Your driving should be supervised from professionals who critique your handling, turning, and braking.
  • Job Placement Assistance: Trucking school can be very expensive, so you want to make sure that you have the tools to get a job out of graduation. Most accredited programs will have some sort of job search assistance for their students, so you should be sure that your program has these types of services as well.

Statewide CDL differences

Now that we have discussed the general basics of becoming a truck driver, we will discuss becoming a truck driver in specific states across the country. We will be covering CDL licensing and trucking careers in the following states: Alabama, Arizona, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, California, and Texas. If your state is not on the list, remember that your local commercial driving manual will have all the information you need. For each state we will cover salaries, job prospects, and the states CDL requirements.

Alabama

  • Salaries: Truck drivers in Alabama on average make between $40,161 and $47,960 per year according to Salary.com.  Keep in mind there is also some room for earning growth for those who get years of trucking experience under their belt.
  • Job Prospects: Alabama has a good deal of open trucking positions available. According to Indeed.com there are currently 1,873 available trucking jobs in Alabama. This number has only continued to rise, so you can be confident that there will be a job waiting for you after trucking school.
  • CDL Requirements:Alabama residents must hold a Commercials Learner's Permit for at least 14 days before applying for a Commercial Driver's License. To use a CDL in Alabama a driver must be 18 years old. Those wanting to make drives outside the state must be at least 21 years old. Drivers must show proof of residence in the state of Alabama in order to apply for a CDL. Drivers applying for a CDL must present a current driver's license, Social Security card, and proof of insurance. Those looking to transfer their CDL from another state must provide one of the following documents in additions to the documents listed above: an Alabama ID Card, Alabama Class D Driver's License, S. Birth Certificate, Current U.S. Passport, Certificate of Naturalization, Certificate of Citizenship, S. Certificate of birth abroad, Resident Alien Card, Valid foreign passport. All CDL applicants must get a physical, fill out state medical forms, and take a state vision exam.

Arizona

  • Salaries: The average salary for truck drivers in Arizona ranges from $36,210 to $50,651 according to Salary.com. This is a much wider range than other states, and you want to make sure that you can get a job in one of the higher paying cities. Don't worry if your starting salary is low though, sticking with a company will net you increased earnings in the long run.
  • Job Prospects: The trucking industry in Arizona has been booming with new openings and positions available across the state. According to Indeed.com there are currently 2,416 available trucking jobs in Arizona, with many more being added every day. If you are looking to be secure in your venture to become a truck driver, Arizona would be a great bet.
  • CDL Requirements: Drivers must show proof of having a Class D license for at least a year before applying for a Commercial License Permit. The Commercial License Permit is valid for up to 6 months. Drivers must be at least 18 years old to use a CDL in the state of Arizona. Any driver making trips outside of Arizona has to be at least 21 years old. Drivers must show proof of residence in Arizona, a personal, current Class D driver's license, Social Security information, and proof of adequate vehicle insurance. Out of state transfers looking to get their CDL will need to present one of the following documents along with the documents listed above: an Arizona ID card, a Class D driver's license from your previous state, a birth certificate, or a current passport. All CDL applicants must get a physical, take a vision exam, and fill out state medical forms.

Missouri

  • Salaries: According to Salary.com, truck drivers in Missouri make anywhere from $36,508 to $41,031 each year. As always there is always room for growing earning potential with experience.
  • Job Prospects: According to Indeed.com there are currently 2,666 open driver positions available statewide. Missouri has some of the better prospects for truckers across the country, and there are more and more openings being posted every day.
  • CDL Requirements:To obtain a CDL in Missouri you must be 18 years or older. If you want to transport materials across state lines you must be at least 21 years old. To obtain a CDL in Missouri you must also possess a Missouri Class D driver's license, a Social Security card, prove that you are a U.S. citizen, prove that you are a current resident of Missouri, and fill out different Missouri medical examination forms.

North Carolina

  • Salaries: According to Salary.com, truckers in North Carolina earn anywhere from $39,422 to $49,392 each year. Salaries will of course vary depending on your location and level of experience.
  • Job Prospects: According to Indeed.com, there are currently 4,923 open driving positions in the state of North Carolina. This is one of the best job markets in the country, and there are new positions being created almost every day. If you are looking to get into the trucking business, North Carolina is a great place to start.
  • CDL Requirements: All applicants for a CDL must be at least 18 years old. Those transporting materials across state lines must be at least 21 years old. Applicants must pass a vision exam and obtain a medical certificate. Applicants must have 2 documents that provide your full name and date of birth, a Social Security card or Social Security number, proof of insurance, and proof of a clean driving record.

Pennsylvania

  • Salaries: According to Salary.com, truckers in Pennsylvania earn anywhere from $44,672 to $54,502 a year. These are some of the highest wages for truckers across the country, so potential truckers in Pennsylvania can be confident that they will earn a respectable wage right away.
  • Job Prospects: According to Indeed.com there are 5,765 available trucking jobs in Pennsylvania. This is great for potential truck drivers looking for reassurance that their trucking schooling and training will lead to an actual job down the line.
  • CDL Requirements: To obtain a CDL in Pennsylvania one must be 18 years old, have a valid Pennsylvania driver's license, and obtain a medical certificate. Driver's transporting materials across state lines must be at least 21 years old. All applicants for a Pennsylvania CDL must prove their citizenship (by providing either a birth certificate, a valid U.S. passport, or a Certificate of Naturalization) and prove their residency in Pennsylvania (either through a lease agreement, tax record, or mortgage documents).

Tennessee

  • Salaries: According to Salary.com the average truck driver in Tennessee makes between $34,601 and $39,687 per year. This is below the national average for truck drivers, but Tennessee drivers do have some potential growth in earnings with experiences.
  • Job Prospects: According to Indeed.com, there are currently 3,610 open truck driving positions in the state of Tennessee. This should reassure drivers in Tennessee that they will have a job waiting for them upon graduation from trucking school.
  • CDL Requirements: In order to obtain a Tennessee CDL one must be at least 18 years or older. Those transporting materials across state lines have to be at least 21 years old. CDL applicants must also provide proof of insurance, a valid DOT medical card, proof of a Social Security number, a Tennessee driver's license or ID, two proofs of residence in Tennessee, and proof of citizenship in the United States.

California

  • Salaries: According to Salary.com the average truck driver in California earns between $35,514 and $46,495 each year. This is a wide range of salaries and really depends on where your trucking company is located. Make sure to research which areas have higher salaries. As always there is room for growth in earning potential with experience.
  • Job Prospects: California is a huge state, which means there is a huge amount of open truck driving positions. According to Indeed.com there are 11,097 open trucking positions in California. You should have no trouble finding a trucking job if you get your California CDL.
  • CDL Requirements:Applicants must be 18 years old. Those transporting materials across state lines must be 21 years old. Applicants must bring a current California driver's license, proof of your Social Security number, and a Medical Examination Certificate.

Texas

  • Salaries: According to Salary.com the average truck driver in Texas earns between $29,456 and $41,996.  The salaries in the state widely depend on where you work, so make sure to research the salaries in your region. There is room for potential growth in earnings with experience.
  • Job Prospects: Texas currently has the most booming trucking industry in the country. According to Indeed.com there are currently 12,986 jobs available for truckers in Texas. If you get your Texas CDL you are almost guaranteed to find a position in the trucking industry.
  • CDL Requirements: To apply for a CDL one must be at least 18 years old. Those transporting across state lines must be at least 21 years old. Applicants must prove their identity by providing a Texas driver's license or ID, an unexpired U.S. passport, a Certificate of Naturalization, or an unexpired military ID.

Remember that if your state wasn't discussed above there is still enough information out there to get you what you need.