Getting Started in Trucking

Truck driving for a living offers many opportunities, but there are a lot of things you need to know before you run off to truck driving school. First you need to do some research and find out what you can about it, the good the bad and the ugly – then make up your mind if you want to continue on or not. Years ago I wrote a book and it is still good information today, so if you want a much more in depth discussion of trucking for new drivers then go to amazon and get your own copy of Introduction to Professional Truck Driving Careers.

The short version is that trucking has both unique opportunities and challenges and most people don’t fully understand either one when they first get into trucking, Many simply rely to much on the propaganda of trucking companies with their slick ads and websites. That would be a big mistake for you to do. Naturally people trying to sell you something – and make no mistake about it, they are trying to sell you on their truck driving job openings, will tell you the best case scenario while glossing over or outright failing to mention any of the negative aspects associated with the same.

Understand that loud and clear – the only one responsible for you and the only one who really gives a damn about you is YOU. So when other people smile and act all friendly always remember that. They are trying to sell you something – otherwise they wouldn’t be so damn nice and friendly. In other words it’s not personal and it’s not social, and they damn sure are not your buddy. If you make the mistake of thinking otherwise and making decisions with half the truth then you will pay the same price many before you already have.

They eventually learn what is true and what isn’t through trial and error and that takes months and years of making bad decisions to learn the lessons from. That is a painful way to learn – so don’t do it. Instead you can save yourself years of pain and tons of money by investing in a few weeks of serious research and study before you start making bad decisions in trucking. You can do it the normal way – or you can do it the smarter way. Up to you either way.

The fact is it is your job to take care of you – and they are doing their job which isn’t to take care of you – but rather to take care of the company that signs their paychecks. That means to get you to come to work there and fill an empty seat. Most are not evil either, and they don’t have some secret trucking industry wide conspiracy, it is simply a different objective than you have. Now having said that there are many different views among trucking companies and there are those who will do more for you than others will because they have a different view on what it takes to attract and keep quality drivers than their competition has.

Trucking companies are like people – there are good ones, bad ones and in-between ones. Most are in the middle, but there are some really bad apples that need to be avoided at all costs – otherwise you will pay dearly for making the poor decision to drive for them in the first place. There are plenty of OK companies. These are neither great or terrible, and they are OK for getting your initial couple of years of experience at – so long as you know what you are doing and how to deal with them efectively.

Ideally you want to get a driving job with the best company you can find as soon as you can, and then take care of that job while you build your own career. Many ways to do that too. You may choose to stay as a company driver but you may also want to consider becoming an owner operator at some point too. Your first company or two that you work for will be laying the foundation for your future goals and career so be careful in selecting where to work.

When you start out in truck driving you will have to meet some basic requirements right off that bat. By the way we are talking about tractor trailer driving in interstate commerce here – not delivery trucks, dump trucks etc. To drive tractor trailers in interstate commerce you have to be at least 21 years old or older. There technically is no maximum age – but unofficially you will probably begin to find it very difficult to get some driving jobs and impossible to get others if you are  65 or older regardless of how sharp your mind may be and strong your body is, many simply will not hire you. They probably won’t tell you the truth either – which is you are too old. That would be politically incorrect to do and possibly a legal liability for them to admit – so they just say “seeking other applicants” or “our payroll company didn’t approve you” . Keep in mind that this is seldom ever the trucking companies themselves – but rather their insurance companies and other third party staffing companies etc., but they dictate to their insured or client trucking company who they will approve and who they won’t.

After the age requirement then comes the ability to pass a DOT physical and get a medical examiners certificate commonly called a medical card. This is mandatory along with getting the CDL (Commercial Drivers License) itself and you must have BOTH to legally drive in interstate commerce. If you want to see the specifics go to www.fmcsa.gov and look them up. Blood pressure and related issues do a lot of people in and cause them to fail a physical. It can usually be corrected by diet and exercise – but until it is, and until the physical has been passed,  no driving of a CMV in interstate commerce will be allowed. People taking insulin will not pass a normal DOT physical either. Too many diabetics have headed off to truck driving school only to find out they wasted their time and money doing so. You will also have to take and pass a drug test.

Things do change from time to time – and some conditions can be remedied and requirements can then be met. Other medical conditions can sometimes be overcome with a wavier but it is not simple or easy to get and it will not be issued in all cases or to all people who try to get one. So if you have some such circumstance then research it BEFORE you go to truck driving schools and spend time and money chasing something where you may have the door slammed in your face. Better to know up front than after the fact.

Then comes your driving record. Moving violations will count against you. Some more than others, such as excessive speed, reckless, following too close – all are problematic. A pattern is also a problem. Several speeding tickets, even if just a little over the limit and a year or more apart, indicate a “pattern of disregard” that is a predictor of a future serious accident and a serious increase of liability for a motor carrier and their insurance company. Translation – no job.

DUI or drug convictions are a kiss of death in most cases. Yes there are exceptions but anyone with such a thing on their record will have a much harder time than anyone without it and many with it will simply not find anyone that is willing to hire them at all so long as that shows on the driving record – and it may be there 7 years or more from the date of conviction. It is important to know and understand that the trucking company itself does not make full independent hiring decisions in most cases. Unless they are very large – meaning hundreds or even thousands of trucks, then they probably are not self insured. For that matter even the big companies that are self insured have risk management professionals that will operate much the same way an insurance company does and they will establish specific hiring guidelines which prevent the company from hiring anyone who doesn’t meet those requirements.

The smaller companies, and any company for that matter that has a liability insurance company, will definitely have the drivers it hires reviewed by the insurance company risk management people. They also have very specific guidelines for the motor carrier to follow – and if it doesn’t they will insist the carrier get rid of any driver hired that doesn’t meet the requirements. It ay also jack up their rates – and in a worst case scenario they will drop their coverage. So long story shorter – in a very real sense the insurance companies control who trucking companies hire and who they don’t.

But wait – it doesn’t even end there. Trucking companies also have workers compensation insurance as mandated by law and the insurance companies that issue it also have their own rules and exclusions, and they try to limit their own risk. Even with state sponsored plans the rates a carrier pays regardless of where they get their coverage depends largely on its past losses – what it had to pay out. The more claims and  the more severity the more money paid out then the more coverage will cost. So again they look hard at potential hires and screen people out that they think are bad risks.

Officially people who have filed previous work comp claims will not have that counted against them when seeking employment – unofficially – and in the real world, when they can, some companies that find out about such claims will avoid hiring anyone who has filed a claim in the past when and if they can. Your answer, should that be you, will likely be “thanks for your interest in our open driving position, however we regret to inform you that we will not be offering you a position at this time and we are seeking other applicants instead” or words to that effect. In other words they don’t want you coming there and having a claim and jacking their rates up – so no thanks. Illegal? Yes, but good luck trying to prove that is why they didn’t hire you – and even to try you would have to hire a lawyer – and pay for it yourself in almost all cases up front – and even then it is very difficult to prove. Chances are you do have some gaps in employment, or a negative reference to some extent where some past employer just didn’t like you, or you have a citation or two on your driving record. If there is any little bitty things there – then that is all they need. Unless they blatantly admit it and unless you can prove it then chances are you are pissing in the wind trying to do anything about it other than move on – and they know that. Some third party companies are especially egregious when it come to such tactics.

Does it mean it’s impossible to get a job if you have previous claims – no it doesn’t. There are many that will follow the law and will hire you if you otherwise meet all their requirements. It just means anyone with claims may have a harder time getting a job and if they wonder why – if everything else is in order – that is probably the true reason behind it regardless of what those rejecting them are giving out as reasons.Just something else for you to be aware of that’s all.

Lets say that you can pass the physical, get your medical card, your background is good,driving record is good then you still need a CDL class A. You need to go to a quality truck driving school to get it. It may be a private school, a state sponsored school, a community college, or even an internal school or otherwise affiliated school owned and or controlled by a motor carrier. In the old days you could go to uncle Bob and he could train you and let you use his truck and and trailer to take the test and that was good enough. Today not so much anymore.

Most companies require a graduation certificate from a licensed truck driver training school in addition to your CDL to let you through their front door. Recent is also key – some people go to truck driving school then instead of immediately going to work with a trucking company they go back home and back to old jobs for weeks or months. They they are surprised and angry when they apply and are told they won’t be hired because they have been out of school too long and now they need to go back and get a refresher course and certificate before applying again. So don’t go to truck driving school until you are actually ready to go to work driving a truck.

When you do get your first job you will most likely be considered to be a “trainee”  and not an experienced driver. That means several consequential things. One is you are  at the very bottom of the food chain when it comes to pay, equipment and loads. It also means you will most likely be paired up with a trainer for anywhere from two to six weeks or so before being allowed to drive one of their trucks by yourself. Training programs vary greatly – and most companies are not very good at training though they think they are. Some are little more than team operations called “training programs” and they are dangerous and a very bad idea as far as I am concerned.

The primary difference is that in a true training situation, you – as a trainee – will do almost all of the driving under instruction of your trainer who will be in the passenger seat any time you are driving and outside the truck monitoring and directing you anytime you are backing. A true trainer will NEVER BE IN THE BUNK SLEEPING WHEN YOU ARE DRIVING OR BACKING – if they are then you have a TEAM OPERATION masked as training and not a legitimate training program at all. You would be amazed at how many knuckle head company safety directors and managers don’t get this simple concept – and I wonder if any of them has ever actually driven a damn truck in the first place. By the way – anyone who has never driven a tractor trailer has absolutely no business being a safety director or a driver training director of any trucking company – period. Yet they are out there – and most don’t know what the hell they are doing.

So what should you do if a company you are considering operates this way? It is your life – so you have to decide, The best thing, in my humble opinion, would be to keep looking until you find a good company with a real training program and not a cheap team operation masquerading as a training program. Keep in mind some don’t share my opinions and they do consider these things as sufficient training – and they are entitled to their opinions, and the liability that goes with them when people are killed as a result of misguided training attempts. I was a driver, a trainer, a third party CDL skills examiner for a state, a licensed instructor, and a safety director and a private transportation consultant who has seen the good the bad and the ugly. I have seen more than enough twisted up trucks and truck drivers both injured and dead. So what I share with you is real world practical experience – not theoretical BS from opinionated people who have not had any meaningful first hand experience in trucking what so ever.

It always comes back to you though. It is your life and your career and you have to make the ultimate decisions on what to do and what not to do. Gather your information. Evaluate it all. Then choose what you believe will be best for you. even then it will be an ongoing continuous learning experience. The idea is to shorten that learning curve and to minimize the lessons that must be learned the hard way so you can do better faster than otherwise possible.

When you first start out in trucking it is exciting and even fun for awhile. Then as time goes on and you get past training and out there on the road doing the job day in and day out – reality begins to set in. Sooner for some than others, but eventually it comes along regardless. There are some specific things that make trucking a high turnover industry. The same things that make it hard to fill openings and keep them filled. Time away from home and relatively low pay – especially starting pay, combined with long hours and stress all combine to cause many people to decide trucking isn’t worth it to them and they just quit. They usually go back to whatever kind of work they were doing before. A few go on to try something else, but they leave trucking and don’t come back to it.

So now you know. Some of the biggest problems are being gone away from home all the time. Too many really do not understand this at all – they think they are going to go do some training, get a new job and be coming home after that. Not really how it works. They instead get a new lifestyle and they don’t live at home anymore – now they live in a truck and on the road. They visit home periodically – but they really don’t live there anymore – not in a practical sense anyway. Two to three weeks on the road and then home two to three days then back out on the road. Then repeat. That is life.

Yes there are exceptions – some people are only gone for a week and then home a day or two and then back out. Others go the other direction and are out four or more weeks routinely before going home – though that is rarer than it used to be it still happens. Some people think they are going to get a local job. A few do – but local jobs are few and qualified experienced drivers wanting them are many. Most companies are going to hire an experienced driver over a new driver and that makes such jobs very hard to get. So while it is possible – it is not a good idea to count on it – and most such jobs are a pain in the ass and the pay is very low compared to regional and longer work anyway. Such experience – if that is all you get – will not qualify you for other jobs in the eyes of many of those making hiring decisions. You will not have mountain driving experience in different climates and trip planning skills as regional and over the road drivers develop and if you do later go OTR with only local experience in a city or town then the chances are high that you will get in trouble and be involved in an accident sooner rather than later.

Starting pay is another reason new drivers drop out. It ain’t much. When you are training often it is just enough for food and expenses and you will be very hard pressed to pay for that and still make car payments, pay rent or mortgage payments, credit card bills and all the normal expenses most people have. Of course if you read any thing else I write then you know how I view debt. If you get rid off all your debt – or at least cut it back, and save up a few weeks to cover it while you are getting started in trucking you will be better off. Otherwise it’s gonna be a struggle. Keep in mind even the tiny pay amount you do get takes awhile to kick in and it may be a couple to three weeks before you have any spendable cash at all paid to you. So you are going to need some money to take with you on the road to cover food snacks and supplies until your pay starts.

It is stressful, It is fun – to most people – but it is also stressful trying to find some tiny business tucked up into a big city with tight spaces and low clearances everywhere when you are doing your first few solo runs after training especially. So you have to stay calm and manage your fear and anxiety and stress. If you don’t you will make a mistake and tear the top out of a trailer, or run over the hood of a car trying to make a tight turn. It happens everyday all across the nation, and is easier than you can imagine to do – all it takes is a momentary lapse in attention and it’s a done deal. Then you are blocking traffic, have damaged someone else property, have people screaming at you, cops and tow trucks to deal with and your own company pissed off at you. Now your stress meter is in outer space.

Much of this can be avoided if people look more at trucking before they get into it. Then get quality training and take it seriously. learn how to do things right and then continue to do them right after training. Understand training doesn’t end with truck driving school. It doesn’t even end with the completion of initial training with your first company – that is actually where it starts. Training and learning NEVER ENDS, if you are smart, until you retire or quit driving trucks. Adopt that mindset and you will do well.

The truth is all the information you need to have to make informed decisions is right there if you look for it – it is not secret, yet it might as well be because few seem to ever get it upfront. If you are reading this – then now you know better – so do not go into trucking with blinders on and half the information you need. Instead do your homework NOW before you start trucking. If you do your chances are much better that you will make more money and be much happier than those who don’t.

Good luck, and always be safe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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