CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a truck driver.
Is becoming a truck driver right for me?
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Meet the basic requirements
• In most U.S. states, you must be at least 21 years old. You must also be legally eligible to work within the country.
• Take the Department of Transportation (DOT) physical and meet or exceed the medical requirements set forth by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Some of the more common medical issues that may concern the DOT include heart issues; high blood pressure; sleep apnea; diabetes and insulin dependence; vision impairment; recent hernia, back injury, or surgery; blood sugar level over 200.
• Submit to a criminal background check. A criminal background (misdemeanor or felony) can be problematic depending on the number of charges, type of charge, and length of time since conviction.
• Submit to an employment history check. Unless it can be sufficiently explained, an unstable employment history, with significant gaps in the last 10 years, can be problematic when seeking employment as a truck driver.
• Submit to a driving history check. Excessive speeding tickets, accidents, and/or DUI/DWI charges can greatly affect whether a trucking company will hire you.
• Many schools prefer that their students have a high school diploma or GED before applying, and some truck driving companies won’t hire you without one. On the other hand, many don't care. The roads are full of veteran truckers who never finished high school.
Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) Training
There are two ways to get CDL training:
Company-sponsored CDL Training
This training option is, of course, available to prospective truckers who get hired before they are actually qualified to drive commercially. It may sound like the perfect scenario, but there are drawbacks to consider. The most significant is that you will have to sign at least a one-year – probably a two-year – contract with the company that trains you. If you decide that the trucking lifestyle is not for you before the contract is fulfilled, you will have to pay back the training costs. On the plus side, if you opt for training that is company-sponsored you will have no upfront costs to earn your CDL.
Here are some factors to think about when considering company-sponsored training:
• Length of contract
• Payback amount if you do not fulfil the contract
• How long you will be away from home during training
• How much you will make per mile versus how much you would make if you were hired with a CDL
Private CDL Training
The key to choosing a reputable school is research. It may be tempting to choose based on proximity or lowest cost, but it is important to find a quality truck driving/CDL school.
When doing your research, look for three key factors:
• No more than three students per truck; two is preferable
• That you have as many opportunities to pass your CDL exam as needed
• That the cost is no more than about $7,000
Some of the advantages of attending a private, freestanding driving school are:
• A wider choice of trucking companies to potentially hire you
• No contracts
• Most companies reimburse tuition fees upon hiring
Regardless of whether your training is company-sponsored or private, be sure that your selected school incorporates the curriculum standards of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The curriculum offered by the Nebraska Safety Center is an example of a program which follows DOT specifications.
Obtain your CDL leaner’s permit
In most states, the CDL leaner’s permit exam consists of a series of written tests on general knowledge of commercial vehicles, combination vehicles, and air brakes.
Pass the CDL test and obtain your CDL license
The Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) test consists of two parts: a written knowledge test and a skills test.
There are seven knowledge tests in total. One covers general knowledge, five cover specific endorsements (such as hazardous materials, tank vehicle, combination vehicle), and the seventh is an air brakes test. Each knowledge test is scored separately, and most drivers take only three or four. The tests you take depend on what type of commercial vehicle you intend to drive, but all of the knowledge tests must be taken in the state where you reside. Different states may have slightly different regulations, especially for transporting certain substances. Your state’s CDL manual will list these regulations. All questions are multiple choice with four answers to choose from.
The skills test is performed in front of an examiner and divided into three parts: a pre-trip vehicle inspection that tests your ability to decide if a truck is safe to drive; basic control skills that test your ability to park, turn, and back up the vehicle; and a road test that gauges your ability to safely drive the vehicle on the road. Anyone wishing to obtain a Commercial Driver’s License must take and pass all three parts of the skills test.
Common reasons why people fail the CDL test:
• Rolling backwards
• Hitting curbs
• Rolling your of gear
• Not checking mirrors
• Not following directions
• Shifting through intersections
• Rolling stops
• Improper emergency stop
• Lack of pre-trip knowledge
Pass the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) exam
The FMCSR exam has both a written and a physical component. The written portion covers federal traffic law. The physical portion includes brief hearing and vision tests.
Once you pass the written portion, you'll never have to pass it again. However, you must take and pass the physical portion of the exam every two years.
Employment / Orientation / Company Driver Training
Once hired by a trucking company, drivers typically undergo company orientation, generally lasting between one and two weeks.
Orientation commonly includes:
• DOT Medical Exam – You will have to complete this even if your current exam is still valid.
• Company Policy Training – At least a day will be dedicated to learning about the company’s policies.
• Road Test – U.S. Federal law requires every trucking company to give a road test to any driver they hire.
• Backing, Turning, and Loading Training – Most trucking companies will provide further training in these areas.
• Flatbed Training – If you will be pulling a flatbed trailer, you will receive extensive training in loading and load securement.
• Safety – Much of the orientation period will be dedicated to driver and road safety.
After you successfully complete orientation you will then be assigned a driver trainer, an experienced trucker that takes inexperienced truck drivers out on the road and trains them.
Your driver trainer will cover:
• How to get fuel
• Truck scales
• Sliding axles and fifth wheel
• Load securement
• Qualcomm – a messaging system with built-in GPS, which allows trucking companies to track where their drivers are, monitor their trucks, and send/receive messages to/from drivers
• Trip planning
• Mountain driving
• How to get a shower on the road
Following the required time on the road with a driver trainer, newly hired truckers are assigned a truck and their first solo load.
How to become a Truck Driver
The primary qualification to work as a professional truck driver is a commercial driver’s license or CDL. To be eligible to apply for a CDL, candidates must be at least 21 years old, the minimum age required to be drive across state lines and operate a vehicle containing hazardous materials. They must also have no prior disqualifying criminal offenses.
Legitimate truck driving schools incorporate the curricular recommendations of the U.S. Department of Transportation. This means that their courses follow the commercial driver’s manual and cover all of these subject areas: industry orientation; vehicle systems, inspections, and control maneuvers; speed management; space management; night driving; driving in extreme conditions; hazard recognition; emergency maneuvers; maintenance and malfunction diagnosis; transport of hazardous materials; trip planning; accident scene procedures; security; and public and employer relations. In addition to classroom sessions, students spend considerable time in the driver’s seat before taking the CDL exams – a written test and a road skills test.
Each state has its own CDL regulations, but federal guidelines require passing a one-time written test covering federal traffic law and a physical (hearing and sight) exam once every two years.