Ballpark Estimate: $1,500 to $10,000
Sooner or later, just about everything we buy, everything we see in stores, must be transported by truck. Drivers classified as “heavy truck” or “tractor-trailer” operators drive trucks with a capacity of at least 26,000 pounds Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW). Transporting everything from food, clothing and toys to livestock, cars and heavy machinery, more than 1.5 million people are employed as tractor trailer truck drivers in this country (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Before each trip, truck drivers are responsible for checking fuel and oil levels; inspecting headlights, windshield wipers, and brakes; checking fluid levels; and making sure they have emergency tools on board such as flares, a fire extinguisher, toolbox, first aid kit, and certain spare parts. Prior to leaving the terminal or warehouse, truck drivers make sure their cargo is properly loaded and secured, and they report any problems to their dispatcher.
The U.S. Department of Transportation requires that truck drivers keep a log of their activities, reporting any accidents or changes to the condition of their truck or cargo. Depending on the company, truck drivers can work within one city, drive to and from the same city on a routine basis, drive to a selection of cities, or drive cross-country on a scheduled route. On multi-day routes, some companies assign two drivers to one truck, so one can sleep in a space behind the cab while the other drives. Once trucks arrive at their destinations, drivers are often responsible for either supervising or assisting as their cargo is unloaded.
Truck driving is more than sitting behind the wheel. Drivers must be able to easily get in and out of their truck, open and close doors, carry loads, and inspect all parts of the vehicle. Many truck driving schools and trucking companies require a pre-work physical assessment test:
- General health, weight, height
- Squat test, 10 reps – ability needed to perform pre-trip inspections
- Front carry, 30 lbs and 60 lbs., 30 feet – ability needed when unloading trailer
- Floor to head lift, 30 lbs. – ability to lift your gear into cab
- Crouching under 40-inch surface, 2 reps for 20 seconds – simulates pre- and post-trip safety checks under truck
- Step-step-kneel-kneel motion – to climb into and out of trailer
- Horizontal pull, 100 lbs. – ability to raise or lower landing gear, slide tandem, open and close doors of trailer
What Kind of Hours Will You Work?
For long-distance, interstate routes, the Department of Transportation has established a list of regulations that limit the number of hours truck drivers can spend on the road, such as only driving 11 hours at a stretch before taking 10 hours off.
Truck drivers are required to log their hours in a logbook. Drivers who are paid by the mile rather than by the hour will often drive at night or on holidays and weekends to avoid heaviest traffic.
You must be at least 18 years of age to drive a large truck within your state. To drive a big rig between states, you must be at least 21 years of age.
Education, License, and Training
To get started, you must have a current driver’s license, and a clean driving record. Most truck driving companies require that you have a high school diploma or a General Education Diploma (GED). Some high schools offer courses in driver training and auto mechanics, which are good place to start. You will need a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) and training to drive a tractor-trailer truck. You can study for your CDL on your own, through a community college program, a dedicated truck driver’s school or vocation/technical school, or through a trucking company that offers training.
Geting Your CDL
Each state has its own rules and regulations for getting your license. The cost for the license itself ranges from $25 to $100. Endorsements such as hazardous materials, doubles/triples, and air brakes can cost between $5 and $43 each.
First, find your state’s Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) website using USA.gov and search for CDL. You will usually find an FAQ section along with a copy of the CDL manual that you can download FREE of charge. Or you can get a hard copy of the manual at your local DMV office also for FREE.
A medical exam is required prior to taking the written exam. The Department of Transportation (DOT) Medical Examination Report is available at the Federal Motor Carrier Assosication free of charge, at local DMV offices, or your doctor may have a copy. Once you pass the medical exam, you will be issued a CDL Medical Examiner’s Certificate. The exam typically costs between $25 to $300 depending on your location.
Studying for the written test may require taking a truck driving course, but you can learn on your own. Download your state’s CDL handbook and study guides if they are available. Look for a CDL practice test to help prepare for the exam. There are also online courses available for around $30 to $100, but remember that each state has its own rules and test, so include your state’s name in your search. If all else fails, you can enroll in driving school. These schools are all-inclusive, teaching for the written test, the driver’s test, and career placement. However, they can be quite pricey ranging from $1,500 to $10,000. Be sure the school offers a DMV-certified program which is at least a 3-week course.
You are also required to take a truck driving skills test. Preparing for this test requires many hours behind the wheel, as well as familiarizing yourself with all aspects of the truck. These tests are not offered in every city or county. Inquire at your local DMV office for test locations and do plenty of research to find the kind of learning situation that best fits your budget.
Vocation and Technical Truck Schools
Depending on where you live, you may find community colleges, vocation/technical truck schools, or private driving schools that offer the professional truck driving training and hours behind the wheel of the big rigs you plan to drive. You can expect your truck driving course to last between 2 and 8 weeks. The CDL Course Directory and Driving Directory list a sampling of public and private vocation-technical schools by state (You can find others by searching the Internet, exploring community colleges in your area, or looking in your phone book). So tuition for private or public vocation-technical truck driving schools for a CDL-A training course can cost between $1,500 to $10,000 (tuition and fees). If you qualify for financial aid, your tuition would be FREE except the cost of books, $200 to $500. However, trucking companies often have tuition reimbursement programs (see below).
In an effort to promote high standards and professionalism in truck driver training schools, the Professional Truck Driver Institute, Inc. (PTDI) created a list of rigorous requirements for courses targeting students of entry level truck driver training. It is a list including only those schools that teach a PTDI Certification Program. The average cost of a PTDI certified program is $4,200. Again, if you qualify for financial aid, tuition is FREE except the cost of books, $200 to $500. However, trucking companies often have tuition reimbursement programs (see below).
Trucking Companies Reimbursement Program
Another way to get your truck driving training is directly through one of the large trucking companies. Before you sign up for an apprenticeship, carefully research the company, its safety record, and the on-the-job training program. Sometimes these companies are advertised as a “Free Truck Driving School,” but this is not completely true. The following rules may apply when using a trucking company reimbursement program:
- During your on-the-job training period, your pay is usualy low averaging between $325 to $375 per week ($8.13 to $9.38 an hour)
- If the company has paid for your truck driving schooling, you are required to sign a contract, agreeing to work for the trucking company for 12 months (sometimes more). During this time, your pay is low, as you slowly pay back what the company feels they invested in your schooling.
- If you paid for your truck driving school on your own, you are still required to sign a contract, agreeing to work for the trucking company for 12 months (or more). During this time, your pay is usually low, even as they slowly reimburse you for your tuition.
- If you quit the trucking company prior to the agreed upon date, you will owe them whatever amount was set forth in the contract averaging between$3,000 to $4,500.
Be very cautious before signing your contract. Be sure you understand where your CDL school is located, what costs you will be responsible for, what kind of training you will receive, how long you will be expected to work for them, what kind of compensation you can expect, and what you will owe them if you decide to leave early. Ask about wait time between jobs, motel accommodations, and what expenses you’re responsible for. Find out if your truck driving training is recognized by trucking companies other than the one you’ll be working for initially. Lastly, be sure that you can cover your living expenses during your first year as a truck driver, when your income may be low.
Truck Driver Training Programs
Werner Enterprises asks you to obtain your CDL license out-of-pocket. But they will pay you between $325 and $350 per week during your on-the-job training.
J. B. Hunt is not currently conducting on-the-job training, but there is a lot of information on their website, along with a listing of job openings/earnings for experienced drivers, so you can see what you might earn in the future.
Swift Transportation, Inc. has a tuition reimbursement program if you attend and pay for one of their company-approved driver training schools. You will be reimbursed in small increments as long as you work for Swift.
How Much Will You Earn?
In May 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the following median pay scales for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers. Annual pay is based on full-time pay for a 40-hour week.
- Starting Wage: $24,190 a year ($11.63 an hour)
- Median Wage: $37,270 a year ($17.92 an hour)
- Maximum Wage: $56,300 a year ($27.07 an hour)
Due to the slowdown of the economy, both in this country and worldwide, business expansion has slowed and many working truck drivers are postponing retirement. Consequently, competition for jobs is stiff. Companies are first looking for drivers with solid experience and a perfect driving record. Therefore, quality training is essential, and the more experience you can get, the better. Starting small, driving locally, keeping a logbook, creating a perfect driving record as well as a perfect record for attendance, on-time deliveries, reliability, and competence may be the best way to go.