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Truck Driver Career Guide

What is a truck driver?

A truck driver is a person who is authorized by their state to transport goods from one place to another. They are primarily responsible for loading and unloading box trucks, planning delivery routes, and making sure the goods are safely transported to their final destination. It is important for truck drivers to maintain a detailed log of their working hours for federal and state regulation purposes.   

A key part of a truck driver’s job is to obey traffic laws and comply with truck driving regulations. Every truck driver will need a CDL license to legally drive large and heavy vehicles. This will hold truck drivers to a higher standard than to other drivers on the road. Truck drivers should be comfortable with basic truck maintenance to keep the vehicle in good conditions for long distance travel.

Qualifications and eligibility

Each state has different requirements for becoming a truck driver, however, there are common regulations across each state. These includes: 

  • You must be 18 years old to drive in state lines and 21 years old to drive state to state
  • You must be a legal resident in the state in which you’ll work in
  • You must have a clean driving record 
  • You must earn your Commercial Driver’s License (CDL)
  • You must pass a background check
  • You must pass periodic drug tests and medical examinations
  • You must carry commercial auto insurance 

A truck driver should also have pallet jack and forklift experience. They will be responsible for loading and unpacking goods from their truck. Becoming forklift certified will help truck drivers move boxes and crates in and out of trucks more quickly, making more room for a smooth delivery. People interested in earning a forklift license can become certified through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration online.

Work environment

Truck drivers will spend the majority of their time in a vehicle traveling to different delivery destinations. Here are some of their common work conditions:

  • May spend several hours in an enclosed vehicle traveling to different places to drop off goods
  • Are often exposed to pollutants, including diesel fuel or exhaust
  • Work with freight handlers and dispatchers to work out delivery schedule
  • May deal with loud sounds while traveling on the road

Truck drivers will also spend their time loading goods and other handcrafted materials in the vehicle for delivery. They may do this working inside or outside, so they should be prepared to work in varying temperatures. Truck drivers should also wear the proper safety gear to protect themselves from lifting heavy objects. If truck drivers aren’t driving or loading cargo, they can be found signing paperwork in their office.

Typical work hours

As you might expect, the typical hours for truck drivers can vary based on their delivery schedules. Truck drivers are often found working most hours a day to make a delivery in one trip. This sometimes requires a driver to work more than eight hours at a time to reach their destination. Truck drivers can work mornings, evenings, and nights. 

Most truck drivers work full-time with some working more than 40 hours a week. Some truck drivers are only allowed to travel within the state, so it is common for those workers to travel shorter distances and work less throughout the week. Truck drivers who drive to different states for deliveries are found working longer shifts, requiring them to sleep at different company facilities or rest areas. 

Types of truck drivers

There are many trucking jobs available in the United States. Check out the different types of truck drivers out there and the responsibilities they hold:

Flatbed Truckers

Flatbed truckers transport goods using a flatbed trailer. This is a unique trailer that doesn’t have walls or roofs to haul large or oversized material that wouldn’t normally fit in traditional dry van trailers. 

Dry Van Truckers

This is the most common type of truck driving. Most truck drivers start off by driving dry van trailers, which are fully enclosed trucks designed to transport a good amount of freight safely and securely. 

Freight Haulers

A freight hauler transports goods from one place to another by truck, train, boat, or airplane. They typically ship liquids, oversized loads, and hazardous products on behalf of another company or business. 

Refrigerated Freight Drivers

Some freight loads may need to be kept at specific temperatures to make sure a product stays fresh and usable. Refrigerated freight drivers carry food, medical products, body products, and other perishable commodities. People in this role will need to keep a close eye on the truck’s temperature to ensure products stay good throughout transportation. 

Tanker Truckers

Tanker truckers transport a variety of liquids, chemicals, gasses, beverages, and dry goods. It is important for truck drivers to follow emergency protocol in case a leak occurs.

Income potential

A truck driver’s salary can vary based on their certifications, experience, and the state or region they work in. Check out the data regarding potential pay for truck drivers:

  • The average annual income for a truck driver will be within the range of $44,603 to $74,923. 
  • A truck driver’s salary can fluctuate based on the state they live in, so it is best to check your state’s statistics beforehand. New Jersey, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Tennessee offer the highest average salary at $55,00 – $58,000. North Carolina and Georgia have the lowest national average at $37,000 – $39,000. 

Keep in mind that there are many different types of truck drivers, so people who have to drive longer distances with more complex vehicles will likely be paid more than someone who drives shorter distances with a smaller truck. Oversized load truck drivers and tanker truckers are paid the most in the industry with an average salary ranging from $70,000 to $90,000. This increased pay is largely due to the fact that these drivers need the additional skills to transport potentially hazardous materials as well as large loads to keep the road safe while traveling.   

Since truck driving usually involves a lot of hours on the road, many people choose to work locally in their area. This allows truck drivers to work less hours while spending less time on the road. While you are typically paid less for driving locally, you will have more flexibility within your schedule. 

Position trends

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 6% job market growth for truck drivers over the next ten years. About 231,000 trucking positions will be posted each year to replace old workers leaving the field and to meet the increased demand for shipment goods.

Career path

As a certified truck driver, you will have the proper skills and experience to work in different positions in the transportation and warehousing sector. While truck drivers spend many hours on the road, they are also required to load and unpack their vehicles, having similar responsibilities as warehouse workers. Truckers will also spend time inspecting their truck’s physical health to ensure their vehicle is ready for travel, so truck drivers can also find different work opportunities in the automotive industry. 

Below is a list of positions that are organic career paths for truck drivers:

  • Bus Driver
  • Taxi Driver
  • Driving Instructor
  • Forklift Operator
  • Crane Operator
  • Machine operator
  • Mechanic
  • Chauffeur
  • Trucking Recruiter
  • Transportation Supervisor
  • Welder
  • Warehouse Worker
  • Mail Carrier
  • Shipping and Receiving Clerk
  • Police Officer
  • Dispatcher

Steps to become a truck driver

1. Earn your high school diploma or pass the GED

Most employers require their truck drivers to have a high school diploma or GED credential. Taking certain courses in high school can prepare students to get behind the wheel. Most high schools offer driver’s education to their students, which is essential for people to take before they can get their regular driver’s license. Practicing driving in regular vehicles will prepare students to get comfortable driving on the road and help them eventually meet their goals of obtaining their CDL license. Other communication and mechanic classes would be helpful electives to take to improve your customer relationship skills as well as understand the different parts and functions of cars and trucks. If you are planning to complete the GED, you will have to study and prepare to take an exam on the following areas: Social Studies, Science, Mathematical, and Reasoning through Language Arts.

2. Research the requirements for obtaining your Commercial Driver’s License (CDL)

You are eligible to get your Commercial Driver’s License at age 18, however, you will only be able to operate a commercial vehicle within your state. Once you turn 21, you will be able to drive outside of your home state. When you reach the age requirement for a CDL, you will want to look over some of the other requirements to confirm your eligibility. Here are some of the steps you have to take before you can earn your CDL:

  • Hold a regular Class D driver license for at least one year
  • Secure a physical and DOT medical card from a qualified medical examiner listed on the Federal Motor Carrier Administration’s registry. 
  • Provide the following documentation to prove your identity and residency:
    • Birth certificate
    • Social Security card
    • Driver’s license
    • Utility bill
    • Driving record

It is also important to be aware of certain issues that could prevent you from getting your commercial license. This includes:

  • Serious criminal records like DUIs
  • Certain prescription medications like opioids, narcotics, or amphetamine
  • Medical conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, respiratory dysfunction, or epilepsy
  • Physical limitations like poor eyesight or hearing

3. Begin your professional training at a reputable truck driving school

There are many CDL truck driving schools to choose from, so it is important to find the right fit for you. Many private training academies and community college programs offer CDL courses and training. These programs will cover basic and advanced operating practices, defensive driving skills, and vehicle inspections to provide you with the knowledge you will need to safely drive commercial vehicles. Some of the top truck driving schools in the nation include Advanced Technology Institute, Delta Technical College, Fortis Institute, and Hamrick School. If you need an online option, check out CDL College.

If you are looking for a more inexpensive way to get your commercial license, many big carriers will offer company-paid CDL training if you promise to work for them afterward. This is a perfect option for anyone looking to get into the trucking industry without breaking the bank for training. 

4. Get your CDL learner’s permit

Before you practice driving on the road, you’ll need to apply for a CDL learner’s permit. You may fill an application out online, in-person, or at the school you’re attending. Along with an application fee, students will need to provide the following documentation:

  • A complete driving record (MVR) that includes all your driving history within the 50 states and Washington, D.C.
  • Current driver’s license as well as information from previous licenses you’ve had from other states
  • Residential address
  • Alternative form of identification such as a passport, Social Security card, or credit card

You should apply for your CDL learner’s permit before you begin school. The learner’s permit allows you to drive commercial vehicles with a qualified CDL holder, which you will need to get on-road experience for your real license. If you are struggling with the application process, you should contact your school’s administration for help since they have experience in that area.

5. Practice and study for your CDL tests

Once you begin your formal training for your CDL license, you will want to stay on top of your studies so you are prepared for the final CDL tests. The Federal Carrier Safety Administration requires students to practice driving with a qualified CDL holder in the passenger seat to instruct them on safety and driving principles. Colleges and private institutions will have enough instructors for students to drive and practice with, however, if your state doesn’t require formal schooling, you will have to find a qualified teacher on your own. 

You will spend a big portion of your training in class, taking notes on different maneuvers, safety guidelines, and how to complete a vehicle inspection. In addition to classroom instruction, students will spend time practicing behind the wheel on public roads. Both of these portions will take about 300 hours to complete and will best prepare you for taking the final CDL tests. 

6. Take the final CDL exams

To earn your Commercial Driver’s License and eventually become a commercial driver, you will need to pass a series of exams. There are four sections on the final CDL test:

  • (Pre-trip) Vehicle Inspection Test – This section tests your knowledge of how well you can inspect your vehicle before you head out on assignment. This includes questions on the engine compartment, braking system, tires, suspension, and coupling devices on combination units.
  • Basic Controls Test – This includes questions on basic maneuvers including parallel parking, alley docking, and straight linen and offset backing. It essentially tests your ability to judge your vehicle’s position in relation to its surroundings. 
  • Road Test – This part of the test requires the student to drive with a qualified instructor, who will then evaluate the student’s awareness and overall skills to drive in various traffic situations. The instructor will note the student’s use of mirrors and signals as well as their ability to brake and accelerate normally. 
  • Endorsements – There are different endorsements you can add on to your license including the Tanker Endorsement, School Bus/Passenger Endorsement, and Hazardous Materials Endorsement (HAZMAT). This allows truckers to drive more advanced vehicles while carrying more people or dangerous cargo.

7. Earn additional endorsements and certifications to strengthen your resume

Earning additional endorsements will make you a competitive applicant for future job applications. Here are some of the most popular endorsements a truck driver can hold:

  • Passenger Transport (P) Endorsement This allows you to drive 16 or more passengers in a commercial vehicle. You must pass a written knowledge test and a road skills test to obtain this endorsement.
  • School Bus or Passenger Transport (S) EndorsementThis allows you to operate a school bus while carrying multiple passengers. You must carry a passenger transport endorsement before you can get this endorsement.
  • Hazardous Materials (H) EndorsementThis endorsement is required if you are carrying hazardous materials such as flammable or combustible liquids, gasses, or other explosive objects. You must pass the TSA security threat assessment as well as a periodic written test on the subject. 
  • Tank Vehicle (N) EndorsementYou’ll need a tank vehicle endorsement if you’re planning on driving a tank vehicle. Passing a written knowledge exam is the only requirement to obtain this endorsement. 

8. Find the right trucking job for you

Once you earn your Commercial Driver’s license and gain some experience on the road, there will be many different employment options for you. Truck drivers can drive various commercial vehicles, so it is important to find the best trucking position for you. Truck drivers have options of becoming a dry van trucker, flatbed trucker, tanker trucker, long-haul trucker, or a refrigerated freight hauler. Most companies will provide insurance for your truck, but make sure that’s included before securing a job.

Tips for becoming a truck driver

If you want to become a truck driver, there are a few things you can do to kick-start your career. Here are some tips for becoming a truck driver:

  • Research what the CDL requirements are in your state. You can find this on your state’s Department of Public Safety or Department of Motor Vehicles website. 
  • Keep a clean driving record. This is key for promotions, pay raises, and becoming a competitive applicant in the job market.
  • Join associations so you have access to resources and advocates in the industry:
  • Make sure to watch your health. There are certain medical conditions that can disqualify you from renewing your CDL, so it is important to nourish your body by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising.
  • Providing excellent customer service is essential for truck drivers. Having strong communication and interpersonal skills will allow you to work out deliveries with customers more smoothly. 
  • Work on your time management skills. Truck drivers need to meet certain deadlines for their companies to be successful. Plan ahead to avoid any mishaps along the way.
  • Never neglect safety protocols. When you are hauling thousands of pounds in your truck, safety should become a priority. Truck drivers should always inspect their truck before departure, wear their seatbelt, and drive defensively.

Truck driver FAQs