Life on the Road
To begin with, let's pop a few bubbles created by rumor, Hollywood, and highway "cowboys." The hard, cold truth of the matter is that fewer than six out of ten new drivers last more than a month. Most quit within the first four weeks on the road. This statistic is astounding when you consider that many of those who quit paid up to four thousand dollars to learn how to drive a truck, spent up to six months in a training school, and probably gave up another job to become a driver.
One reason for the alarming rate of turnover among new drivers is that many potential drivers base their career decisions primarily on misinformation. The image of the driver roaring down the road in a big, shiny diesel, sightseeing like a permanent highway tourist is ingrained in the American imagination. While it is true that a road driver sees a lot of the country, what's not immediately obvious is what he or she has given up to do this. Believe it or not, most drivers quit because they have never before experienced the loneliness of the highway--what it is like to be away from the house, from your family and friends, away from all the activities you are used to participating in--in exchange for a career as a truck driver. For lack of a better term, call it homesickness.
Now, before you snicker or laugh, take a good look in the mirror, and ask yourself a few questions. What are your favorite activities? Do you like playing softball on the church or community league? Forget it. Do you enjoy seeing the newly released movies as they come out? Forget it. Do you follow your favorite teams-basketball, baseball, hockey, or whatever-and attend all the home games? Forget it. Have you ever in your life spent two weeks away from home, your family, and friends; returned for a day, then left again for another two weeks; returned for a day, and then left again? That's a true picture of a truck driver's life. In short, truck drivers place their business life ahead of recreation or a scheduled social life. It is certainly not a lifestyle everyone can readily accept or handle. It is an incredibly hard adjustment.
If you are married, or plan to marry, you should know that truck driving--especially long-distance, over-the-road driving--can be one of the most devastating and trying careers on a family and a marriage. Unless you are willing to miss anniversaries, birthdays, family get-togethers, and special events, forget truck driving. The Hollywood image of a trucker--one who's constantly stopping by to see a girlfriend or boyfriend, who's home for the kid's birthday, and makes it back to attend the homecoming game--is, like most things out of Hollywood, a work of fiction.
Perhaps this picture seems too gloomy to be true. Unfortunately, it is an extremely accurate depiction of the life of an over-the-road driver. Trucking firms, who may have half a dozen $160,000 rigs parked out back with no drivers to drive them, may create a different image in their advertising. These companies urgently need to entice drivers to them and have few scruples concerning how they do it. Unfortunately, in their quest for new drivers, some firms resort to rosy advertising or misleading representations.
Yet, there are a great many benefits of a career in truck driving. Before we look at benefits, let's look at what you need to become a driver.
Education and Training
Trucking is special because it is a meaningful occupation that doesn't require a college degree, though many drivers do hold degrees, and a great many work seasonal trucking jobs to earn enough money to attend classes during the winter. (One of the largest employers of this type of seasonal driver is the household moving industry, whose busiest time is from May through August.) Education and training are important to drivers. In the modem trucking business, it takes intelligence to make a living.
It's a timeworn Catch-22, but most companies require that a driver have some experience before they will hire him or her. The obvious question is how do you get experience if no one will hire you? There are two ways. The first, and by far the most common today, is to attend a truck driving school. The second method, common 20 years ago but rapidly disappearing today, is by being hired by an owner/operator and learning the craft from the person who owns the truck. This second method is all but extinct, lighter and tougher insurance requirements, the rising cost of equipment and repairs, the gradual decline of independents, and the overall risk involved have made the OJT (on-the-job-training) method impractical, dangerous and, in some cases, impossible.
However, as is often the case, when one door closes, another opens. It is becoming increasingly more common for companies--especially the larger carriers such as England, Hunt, Schneider, and others--to offer in-house training for their drivers. In fact, most of these companies require new drivers, even those who have graduated from recognized truck driving schools, to attend their own courses and to make their initial runs with a trainer. With the tendency for bigger, faster, heavier and increasingly complex equipment, expect this trend to expand industry-wide.
Selecting a School
With the current shortage of drivers, truck driving schools are flourishing. Unfortunately, not all schools are created equal, and it pays to be wary when you are shopping for a school. Training, after all, is an important investment in your future, and it is wise to exercise some caution when looking at a vocational truck driver training facility.
To make an intelligent decision, you need to know some basic facts. Let's consider the basic requirements for a driver. The first is age. The law may state that you can hold a commercial or chauffeur's license at age 18 or 19, depending on the state or province where you reside. However, on a practical basis, you will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find a driving job unless you are at least 21. Even then, there are very few companies willing to hire a driver that young. Most will require an age somewhere between 23 and 25.
Moreover, if you are a resident of one of the Canadian provinces, you may find you are required to serve as much as two years in an "apprenticeship" program. In this program you will at first only drive about the yard, then to nearby local destinations, then within a very short range beyond the terminal, then finally, perhaps after two years, over the road.
The reason for this requirement is simple. All carriers must, by law, have insurance coverage to remain in business. All insurers are painfully aware of the statistics on younger drivers. Most insurance companies are unwilling to insure a $120,000 tractor, a $60,000 trailer, and a load that may be worth $500,000 or more and then entrust them to a driver who, statistically, is extremely likely to have an accident behind the wheel.
With these facts in mind, look hard and long at the driving school you are considering. Are they promising to teach you to drive and get you a job even though you are only 18? If so, make them prove it before you sign anything, pay anything, or commit to anything. The jobs for the 18- to 21- year-old driver are usually within construction or, in some cases, local delivery services. Few, if any, over-the-road carriers will hire 18-year-olds; as of this writing, no major carriers were absorbing that kind of risk. You may not like it, but this is the hard, cold truth, and it could save you a lot of money and frustration in the long run.
Does accreditation of a school mean anything? The answer here is yes and no. Basically, accreditation is a statement from the state or federal government that says it's okay for the school to be in business. Accreditation is what makes the school eligible for federal and state funding for its students. However, the state or federal government's guarantee that the school is legitimate is not the same as saying it will make a good truck driver out of you.
Today, most schools work in conjunction with one or more carriers, and this is the key to judging the training you are about to receive. Don't be afraid to talk to these carriers or to students who have graduated from the school. Keep in mind if you receive a list of graduates from the school itself that you are going to receive preselected individuals. No school, or for that matter, no business is going to give you a list of their failures or those who left unhappy with their instruction. The best way to check your potential school is to visit carriers where the school places graduates and fill out the job application, and ask them bluntly, "If I take the course and graduate, will you have a job for me?" Generally, it takes less than 48 hours to "run" an application, check references and driving records, and reach a decision. If the carrier says that they would hire you if you attended the school and passed the course, chances are you've located a legitimate school.
What are some of the pitfalls that could prevent you from obtaining employment as a driver? Three areas can shoot you down before you even get started: If you have more than one moving violation in the past year (or past three to five years for many companies), you probably won't qualify; if you have a DWI (driving while intoxicated) conviction, it's 99 percent certain you won't be hired; and if you use illegal drugs, look for another occupation. By law, all companies today require a pre-employment drug test for their drivers, not only prior to employment, but sporadically throughout the year.
In addition, the federal government has a program underway to spot-check drivers for drug and alcohol use at weigh stations and DOT (Department of Transportation) inspection ports across the country. The day of the "pilled-up driver" and the habitual traffic offender is over in the trucking industry. Drug prevention within the transportation industry as a whole-including rail, air, and land transport-has become a priority and mandatory. The drug test has become a standard part of the Department of Transportation physical, and you cannot get a job as a driver without that physical. In addition, more and more companies are becoming self-policing, requiring potential employees to undergo drug testing as an integral part of their own in-house safety program. In other words, if you "do" drugs, you won't drive a truck.
In a further effort to weed out the "outlaw" driver, the federal government has instituted a federal licensing program. At one time, some truckers held operators licenses in a number of states. Since state reporting authorities seldom communicated driving records or offenses to each other, these drivers could effectively hide any tickets they collected by simply producing another driving permit from a different state. The federal licensing system has not only done away with this practice-which has always been illegal-but, in addition, has created a moderately complicated test that all drivers must pass before being commercially licensed.
These stringent requirements have had a major effect within the industry, weeding out a great many drivers who had no business being on the highway. This, in turn, means that even more driving slots are available. Therefore, if you have a squeaky clean driving record, you are attractive to trucking outfits, and you will find yourself very much in demand.
At this point, we should probably address some of the things that are not necessary for a career as a truck driver. One major misconception is that you must be some sort of muscle-bound superhero to drive a rig. Today's rigs are designed for the ease and comfort of the driver. Power steering, air conditioning, climate controls, and many other creature comforts are available in modem rigs, and most companies recognize that the driver's comfort is directly linked to his or her satisfaction with the company and his or her performance on the road. The hardest, most physical acts, excluding loading or unloading, are probably hooking and unhooking trailers. That's not to say physical fitness isn't important for a truck driver, but pure brute strength is seldom necessary to operate a tractor-trailer rig. There are a couple of exceptions.
The DOT Exam
There is far more to trucking than just learning how to pilot a rig through an obstacle course. In fact, driving may be one of the less challenging topics you address during your training. The federal and state laws governing trucking are myriad and often complicated, and you will be expected to learn those that apply to you and your rig. In fact, before you are allowed to drive a rig, you will have to pass both a physical and a series of written exams. Included in your written exams are a number of licensing requirements. Unlike automobile licenses, a truck driver needs federal certification on his or her license for every conceivable driving situation they might find themselves in. Hence, in addition to a general knowledge test, you will take an exam on air braking systems, may need to take an exam for hazardous material handling, commonly referred to as a HazMat endorsement (which is earned through a written exam), certification for pulling multiple trailers if that is what you intend to do, and another exam for tankers.
In addition, all drivers are required to take a basic Department of Transportation (DOT) written exam each time they enter employment with a carrier. This exam is entirely separate from your driver's license exam. When you complete this test, you will be issued a DOT card stating that you have successfully taken and passed the exam. This, along with your driver's license and your DOT physical card, are almost always asked for when you are stopped at weigh stations or checkpoints by state and federal authorities. You are required by law to have them, and it is illegal for any transportation company to hire you as a driver without them.
The test, while not overly difficult, is fairly thorough. It consists of about four pages of questions covering topics ranging from how many hours a driver can legally log during a 24-hour period to where and when to use flares in case of a breakdown. All questions in the DOT exam are based on information and laws in the Motor Carriers Safety Act. Usually, you can obtain a free copy from any major trucking company or from your public library. A working knowledge of the DOT rules and regulations are vital to your career in the transportation business, even if you don't intend to become a driver.
Another major misconception about trucking has to do with money. Truck drivers do not, as some advertisements might lead you to believe, make a fortune. You can earn a good living as a driver, but you could earn the same real income from a variety of other occupations, too, and do it without some of the drawbacks inherent in the trucking industry. So that you can judge the economic potential of a trucking career for yourself, let's look at some averages from the "real world" of transportation.
For the moment, we are only going to address the income of the over-the-road driver, or long-distance freight hauler. There are a number of ways to be paid in this business. The most common is by the mile. However, mileage is an elusive thing. Ask any three people how far it is from one point to another, and you will most likely receive three different answers. To avoid discrepancies, the industry adopted a standardized mileage guide many years ago called the Household Mover's Mileage Guide. It was the standard of the industry and also the primary basis for payment of truckers. Most refer to these tables and payment rates as "book" miles. This guide is rapidly being replaced by a computer- driven system called the "PC Miler." Both systems suffer from the same drawbacks.
The problem with book miles is that the shortest distance between two points is seldom the same route any sane person would want to take in a 65-foot long, 13-foot high tractor-trailer rig. In short, there is usually a discrepancy between book miles and the actual miles you will travel. Opinions on how large the average margin of error is vary, but most accept it to be between a 10 and 15 percent difference. This may sound unimportant, but when your paycheck is based upon it, it's best to know ahead of time what you are facing. In effect, what you are looking at is being paid for 85 percent of the miles you drive.
Now, let's apply a few real figures to this equation. In an "average" freight operation, each driver logs about 115,000 solo miles a year. At the same time, payment based on book miles is for 97,750 miles. In other words, each driver probably ran 17,250 miles for free during the year. Obviously, the differential between book and actual miles is important after all. If you are being paid 31 cents per mile (a fairly common figure), your income will be about $30,302 per year. On the surface, this is a reasonable sum of money, and the opportunity for bigger earnings becomes greater with each passing year, as you become more valuable to the company. Trucking is an industry where raises for experience and expertise are common, a business where it is truly what you know and not who you know.
However, earning figures, even after factoring the book miles into them, are still misleading. Most companies expect you to pay your own way out on the highway. This means meals, personal expenses, and more come out of your pocket. The average cost for the average driver out on the road runs from $22 to $35 per day out, depending on your lifestyle. Again, depending on the company and your route, the amount of time out on the road will vary widely. For argument's sake, assume 22 days per month on the road at $26 per day for 12 months, or a road expense of $6,864 per year. Suddenly, you find that you have a bit more than $23,000 remaining from your income before taxes. So it's easy to see that money is not the primary motivating factor for becoming a driver.
Trucking Career Advantages
Why should you choose trucking as your career? Is there anything good about the occupation? The answer, of course, is a resounding "yes." There is an element of freedom involved with trucking. Although you generally call your office each day, you are usually miles away. This gives you a sense of independence seldom awarded an hourly wage employee, or even a salaried executive. For the most part, the company trusts you enough to allow you the independence to operate an expensive piece of equipment, often carrying an expensive load, without direct supervision. They trust you enough to believe you will make delivery on time, that you will get the load in safely, and that you will represent the company to their clients in a courteous and professional manner at both the shipping and receiving ends of your journey. You have proved yourself dependable and trustworthy in their eyes. This factor, in itself, is enough to lead many to join the ranks of drivers traveling the nation's thoroughfares.
Trucking also offers great challenges, and many drivers thrive on that. You are in control of up to eighty thousand pounds of steel and freight and diesel power, expected to operate in light or darkness, good weather and bad. Your judgment and your judgment alone will keep you and your fellow motorists safe, and your equipment whole. There is a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from meeting this challenge. It's a feeling that must be experienced rather than described.
Trucking also offers job security. While other businesses are laying off workers, there is a very definite shortage of drivers. Once you have proved yourself a capable driver, you will find that the company will do whatever they can, within reason, to keep you on their team and operating happily. This may not translate into huge raises or placing you in a brand new rig each year, but little "perks" are becoming more and more common, from three-day bonus vacations to systems that allow you to take your spouse on the road with you once in a while.
Finally, trucking is an honorable occupation. You can justifiably take pride in making a timely delivery or a safe driving decision. Without trucks and truck drivers, the nation would grind to a halt very quickly. Some say that should all trucks stop making deliveries, the city of New York would run out of food and raw materials within three days. Exaggerated or not, this statistic does give some measure of just how vital the driver's role is in the overall economy of the nation. There simply is nothing else that can take the place of the truck or the truck driver. For those who can handle the pressures and problems, it is an exciting and fulfilling career.