Trucking vs. college: Knowing which is right for you

Career road sign

Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles on choosing truck driving as career. Part two: Life on the open road

For most high school seniors, it is ingrained from a young age that the only path to success is through a four-year university. Students are warned that if they don't go to college, they will be stuck flipping burgers for the rest of their lives.

Of course, this is not at all the case.

There are career choices that provide moderate wages and promising employment prospects that require only a year or less of additional education. One of the best industries for those right out of high school is the trucking industry. Truckers often make anywhere from $45,000 to $50,000 as a starting salary, and with experience can make over $60,000 per year. The trucking industry is also facing a shortage of drivers, so there is plenty of employment opportunities out there for those who want it.

The truth about four-year colleges

Parents, teachers, and advisors all bombard students with the notion that college is the end-all, be-all for post-secondary education. What they don't often say is the ever-changing landscape of college education, and how it might not be as beneficial as many once thought.

The idea of college education is to give students the skills and knowledge they need to succeed once they get out into the workforce. This sounds like a solid investment, and the allure of a college education can certainly be understood. However, there are a few reasons why you may want to consider some other options.

The number of Americans going into the college system is growing at an incredibly fast rate. As with anything else, the increased demand for college has led to rapid growth in education costs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost for undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board, and books is around $16,000 per academic year. This is only for public institutions; private institutions can cost up to $41,000 per year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 2015. For those keeping track, that means getting a four-year college degree can cost anywhere from $64,000 to $160,000 per year. For those who cannot afford such costs, the choice is scholarships or loans.

Problems with student loans

Student loans may seem relatively straight forward. You get a loan from the bank, you get a degree and a nice comfortable job, and you pay the loan back over the next couple of years. Sounds like a fair deal, right? But the truth is, many students are taken advantage of by the student loan industry, and many end up in debt for the rest of their lives. The total outstanding amount of student debt in the United States is $1.2 trillion. And unsurprisingly, 60% of this debt is owned by the poorest households. Many would argue that this is not a big deal. After all, this debt helped students get very good careers after college. However, that is not the current reality. There has been a huge problem of falling returns in college education, as many college students are finding themselves unemployed or underemployed after graduating. As these students search for jobs in a struggling economy, their interest on student loans goes up. Even if they do eventually find a decent job, their loans will have so much interest that many will have little chance of paying them off in less than 10 years.

The United States government has been aware of this problem for some time. President George W. Bush signed into law a student loan forgiveness program for those who take up public service positions after college, noted an article in USA Today. If the program works as planned, students in public service positions will only pay a small amount of the debt for 10 years, after which loan servicing companies will pay the rest of the debt for the student. However, many of these servicing companies provide incorrect or incomplete information, and often try to delay or prevent student loans from being forgiven, the article said. The Trump administration has also signaled a willingness to get rid of the program completely, stating that the current program is ineffective and inefficient. Simply put, getting your loans forgiven is based on luck as much as it is your profession.

So what's the alternative?

Many may read the problems with college education and feel completely at a loss. After all, how is anyone supposed to get a job without a college education? Thankfully, the idea that a four-year degree is the only way to a successful and meaningful career is a very outdated concept. Mike Rowe, host of the show Dirty Jobs, has previously pointed out that there are millions of jobs that do not require a Bachelor's Degree. Rowe argues that four-year colleges do not teach many of the skills necessary for jobs that don’t involve sitting at a desk for eight hours a day. This creates what he calls a skills gap, where college graduates simply do not have the skills necessary to perform a majority of the jobs available in the United States. Rowe argues that four-year degrees often saddle students with huge debt and prevent them from being successful financially. He argues that many students would be better served going to more affordable vocational programs, which teach real-life skills and lead to stable employment for many students.

The trucking industry

If you are reading this and realize that a four-year degree might not be right for you, you should consider getting a trucker's license. There are many reasons why trucking is a good choice for students right out of high school:

  • Schooling: Most trucking programs only take 3 to 6 months to complete and offer job placement services, professional instruction, and on-the-road driving experience. As an added bonus, costs for many of these programs range from $1,000-$7,000 (although most will average around $3-$5,000). This is very low cost when compared to the tens of thousands of dollars most four-year degrees cost.
  • Good Salaries: Truck drivers earn yearly salaries of between $38,000 and $66,000. Keep in mind that the average salary for a starting truck driver is around $43,000, according to Glassdoor. This is about as good as most starting positions after graduating college, and you'll have significantly less debt as a result. Truck driving also has many career advancement options, and senior drivers will be able to earn up to $70,000 a year. Most trucking companies also provide health benefits similar to the packages offered by corporations.
  • No Gas Expenses: Almost any trucking company will pay for your gas on your drives. This will save you a lot of money as compared to the cost of gas getting to your normal 9 to 5 job.
  • No Dress Code: Most trucking companies have no real dress code since you are spending the majority of your time in your truck. Of course there may be certain restrictions when meeting with clientele, but overall you won't have to worry about spending hundreds of dollars on different outfits for work.
  • Driving All Day: You'll be driving all day as a trucker. For some, this a great thing. You can spend the day listening to CDs and the radio, and have a lot of time to yourself to mull things over. You’ll also be driving to different places and will get to see and experience many different things (while not on the job of course).

So obviously truck driving can be a pretty sweet gig. But most people have little idea what being a truck driver actually entails. Below are a few things that you must do when becoming a truck driver.

Essential skills for truck driving

  • Good Driver: Not surprisingly, you have to be a good driver in the trucking industry. In order to get a Commercial Driving License (or trucking license) you have to have an almost spotless driving record in normal vehicles. Eighteen wheelers are a different beast entirely with their complex air brake systems and tougher handling, so you’ll have to be able to adapt your driving skills between the two types of vehicles.
  • Hard Worker: Truck driving is very rewarding, but it is by no means easy. You'll often be driving for long hours trying to get your next destination. You'll be away from your family and friends for long periods of time. You could be driving for 10-11 hours a day, but be sure to never drive to the point that you might fall asleep. It isn’t worth losing your life or taking another. Try and plan your routes so that you have some time to rest, and try and find a trucking company that understands the importance of preventing drowsy driving on the road.
  • Mechanical Skills: As a truck driver, you will be responsible for maintaining and fixing your own vehicle. These trucks have fairly complex systems and you will be responsible for diagnosing and fixing any problems that occur. Try and find a trucking school that covers truck maintenance as it will be very important in advancing your career.
  • Organization and Planning: Truck drivers often plan their own routes and are responsible for getting to their destination quickly and on time. You should have a strong sense of direction and be able to research the fastest roads and highways to get to your destination.
  • Adaptability: Sometimes your routes might not go as planned. With construction, traffic accidents, and other occurrences, there will often be times where you will have to reroute on the road. Being able to adapt and still make your drives on time is very crucial.
  • People Skills: While you will spend most of your time driving by yourself, you still have to talk to clients, other truckers, and supervisors frequently. Being able to understand instructions, communicate your ideas efficiently, and speak to different types of people is important.

How to get started

If it sounds like a truck driving career would be a good fit for you or your child, you may be wondering where to start. Don't worry, we'll give you a step by step guide on how to get driving in no time.

  1. High School Diploma: Most trucking schools require students to have earned their high school diploma or GED. Make sure you are on the right track to graduate.
  2. Fulfill CDL Requirements: There are certain requirements that must be met if you are pursuing a CDL. Those who are 18 can pursue a CDL, but only those who are 21 years or older can drive across state lines or transport hazardous materials. You must also have a clean criminal record (no felonies) to be considered for a CDL.
  3. Find a Trucking School: It is very difficult to get into the truck driving industry without some form of trucking education. Some trucking companies offer classes, while other trucking programs are offered at local community colleges or vocational schools.
  4. Take your Driving and Knowledge Exams: Almost every state requires potential drivers to pass a knowledge and driving test in order to obtain their CDL. The knowledge test involves state and federal driving regulations, traffic laws, truck systems knowledge, and more. The driving test is to ensure that you are comfortable and knowledgeable when behind the wheel. Your trucking school should prepare you well for these exams, but you should be sure to study diligently so you can pass the exams with ease.
  5. Get a Medical Examination: You will need to get a medical examination by a state evaluator before getting your CDL. This will most likely involve tests to your vision, hearing, drowsiness, and other physical attributes. These examinations are for your and other travelers safety, but should be relatively uneventful.
  6. Obtain the CDL and Find Employment: Once you get through the first five steps, you should be able to obtain your CDL and find a truck driving position. Most truck driving schools offer job placements services to help you find a position. However, there are a ton of open positions across the United States, so finding a truck driving job shouldn't be too difficult.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully what we have shown you today is that while four-year colleges are an option, they don’t have to be your only option. Vocational schools and other alternative career options exist, including trucking.