Steps to Become a Professional Truck Driver
If you’re interested in becoming a truck driver and want to know where to begin, you’re in the right place. Here is a guide to what you need to know to start your journey as a professional truck driver.
What does a truck driver do?
Truck drivers help keep the country’s economic engine churning by transporting goods. Driving routes range in distance, lanes, and cargo being transported.
They are typically categorized as:
Dedicated routes – When a driver hauls freight for one primary customer on the same route consistently with regular routes, schedules, and people involved from end-to-end.
Short-haul trucking – These routes are 150 miles or less. Short-haul truckers often drive multiple routes in a single day but spend minimal (if any) nights on the road.
Over-the-Road (OTR) trucking – OTR drivers haul freight long distances (250 miles or more) across state or national borders. They might spend days or weeks on the road at a time.
Driving a truck professionally involves core responsibilities that include:
- Loading and unloading cargo
- Securing cargo
- Filling out paperwork for deliveries
- Performing vehicle inspections
- Keeping logs of hours worked and driving
Truck drivers also have to learn how to operate their vehicles safely under different conditions. For example, drivers need to know how to navigate steep grades to avoid brakes from overheating or how to make sure loads don’t shift when handling sharp turns.
8 steps to become a truck driver
Before you can start driving professionally you need to complete licensing and training—and get some experience behind the wheel.
Here are the eight steps to get started
1. Meet minimum requirements.
You’ll need to be at least 21 years old if you want to drive across state lines. In some states, drivers can get a CDL at 18 but will be limited to intrastate driving. Most companies, however, will want you to be at least 21 before hiring you.
2. Have a regular driver’s license.
You will also need a valid driver’s license with little to no driving violations. Companies do background checks when hiring, so a clean driving record will help.
3. Get your Commercial Learner’s Permit.
A Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP) allows you to get behind the wheel with a qualified CDL holder sitting alongside you. This helps you gain real-life experience to learn how to handle your rig. CLPs are issued by your state DMV and generally require passing a physical exam and passing written knowledge tests.
4. Get some driving experience.
You may also want to attend a truck driving school to learn the best way to handle your big rig. Many community colleges offer training programs. Some companies also offer company-sponsored programs and may reimburse costs if they hire you.
5. Earn your CDL.
Obtaining a CDL is a multi-step process and is usually done in your home state.
The minimum requirements include:
- Be at least 18 years old (21 for interstate travel)
- Proof of citizenship
- Possess a valid driver’s license
- Have driving experience (this depends on the state but is usually at least 2 years)
- Clean driving record
- Passing DOT physical exams
- Successfully completing FMCSA-approved training
- Pass a background check
Depending on the type of truck you’ll be driving, there are classifications of CDLs that require additional steps. These include:
- Class A: Tractor-trailers (semi-trucks), tankers, flatbeds
- Class B: Trucks not hitched to a trailer, such as box trucks or buses
- Class C: Hazmat vehicles or vehicles that transport 16 or more passengers
You will need to get a Class A or Class B CDL to work as a professional truck driver. Some certifications can help you get hired faster and earn better pay.
- (H) Endorsement for transporting Hazmat loads
- (N) Endorsement for operating a tank vehicle
- (T) Endorsement for hauling double or triple trainers
- (X) Endorsement for hauling tankers or HazMat loads
Endorsements are issued by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and may include written tests and road tests.
7. Find a job.
If you use a truck driving school or community college for training, most will assist in finding jobs after graduation. You can also use industry websites and online job boards.
8. Complete a finishing program.
Most truck driving companies will want new employees to complete a driver finishing program to make sure you are familiar with the vehicle you’ll be driving and any equipment you will need to do the job. This may or may not include formal training or pairing you with an experienced driver as a mentor.
How long does it take to become a truck driver?
If you follow the steps above, you can learn how to become a truck driver with no previous experience. You can generally complete truck driver training in an average of 12 weeks. Some programs take as little as four weeks, while others span a year.
Once you have completed training and passed your tests for your CDL, some states issue them immediately while others may take a week or two to be issued by mail.
Career paths for truck drivers
Once you start to gain experience, there are a few different career paths you can take in the trucking industry.
Many drivers are happy working for a company without having to worry about running their own business, while others get experience and become owner-operators to increase their pay. Either way, you’ll need to get some hours under your belt, maintain a clean driving record, and add endorsements to your CDL (for higher-paying loads) in order to progress onto a truck driving career path.
Deciding to be an owner-operator is about more than money. Owner-operators benefit from a flexible schedule, working for themselves, and having the opportunity to gain real business management experience. Like any self-run company, becoming an owner-operator involves a lot of responsibility.
Unlike company drivers who only need to worry about getting their loads to the right place at the right time, successful owner-operators have to think about the entire business side of their operations. Keep these considerations in mind when weighing the pros and cons of being an owner-operator:
Managing Finances and Billing
As an owner-operator, you also wear the hats of accountant, payroll specialist, and human resources manager. Make sure you’re prepared to finance your equipment and maintenance, keep track of business expenses, stay tax-compliant with your payroll, and stay on top of invoicing your clients.
Setting up Insurance
Another important aspect of running your own trucking business is insuring yourself (and any other drivers you might bring on) and your equipment. As the owner-operator, you will be responsible for any accidents while loading, unloading, and driving, so you’ll need comprehensive coverage.
Competing With Carriers
Owner-operators have to be resourceful when it comes to finding and booking loads, because as an entrepreneur, you won’t have all the tools and systems in place that carriers do. Trucking companies have the advantage of established relationships as well, so owner-operators have to work hard to secure clients.
Negotiating for Loads
Aside from competing with other drivers, owner-operators also have to advocate for themselves when it comes to negotiating loads. Do you know your worth? Are you ready to fight for fair prices? You might also want to consider working with freight brokers to ensure you’re getting the best lanes for your schedule.
Independent truckers are similar to owner-operators, but there are some important differences between the two. Unlike an owner-operator, independent contractors buy or lease a vehicle from a third party, and work under the umbrella of a carrier as a contracted employee. In most cases, you won’t need to worry about fuel taxes, permits, or load insurance, since those are typically handled by the carrier.
As an independent truck driver, you will contract with one or more trucking companies or owner-operators under their DOT authority. You will generally have the freedom to choose your loads and manage your own time, and you’ll also be responsible for running your own business.
Trucking company employees
Company drivers are employees of a specific carrier. They drive a company truck, take the loads they are assigned, and get paid either by the mile or by the hour. The company typically manages expenses like fuel and maintenance. One of the biggest advantages of being a company driver is a consistent paycheck. Drivers may also be eligible for bonuses.
Being a company employee can be a great choice for drivers with specific needs, such as a family at home that rely on reliable benefits like health insurance, or consistent schedules.. However, the downsides might include not being paid for time waiting for a shipper or receiver and the lack of flexibility to pick up last-minute high-paying loads.
How do truck drivers get paid?
Truck drivers get paid in different ways, including:
- Hourly rate
- Pay per mile
If you’re an owner-operator, your pay may come from load sharing (percentage of the load). Rather than getting paid per mile or per hour, drivers earn a percentage of the revenue on loads.
Some add-ons can increase what you earn depending on what’s required. For example, there may be additional pay for accessorial charges to handle things such as:
- Loading and unloading trailers
- Operating forklifts or pallet jacks
- After-hours deliveries
- Tarping loads or shrink-wrapping pallets
- Rural deliveries
You may also receive additional pay for the time you have to spend at locations for loading or unloading, or if you get stuck at a facility waiting (detention pay). Some companies also provide per diem pay, which is reimbursement for your expenses like hotel stays and meals, up to a certain amount.
How much do truck drivers make?
Pay ranges for truck drivers can vary greatly, depending on the type of truck you’re driving, the load you’re carrying, and whether you’re a company driver or an owner-operator.
According to PayScale, the average truck driver’s salary is around $21.98 per hour for commercial truck drivers. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the average truck driver’s salary slightly higher at $25.52 per hour. Like most jobs, new drivers can expect to earn less when they start. More experienced drivers tend to earn more.
With the nationwide shortage of truck drivers, pay has increased significantly over the past few years, and many companies are offering significant sign-on bonuses and incentives to new drivers.
Many drivers start out earning less while working for trucking companies and then become owner-operators once they have more experience.
Get your authority and get moving.
After you’ve worked for a while as a company driver or owner-operator, you may want to get your own trucking authority to grow your business and your income. There are several steps involved, and it can get pretty complicated, which is why Truckstop is the perfect resource for helping drivers take charge. Be your own boss and get your trucking authority now.