Best Time to Become a Truck Driver

By CM Strawn 3/6/20

My story

          I have been in the trucking industry since 1985 until 2019 – over 30 years. It’s the one career that I have truly loved. Although it’s not been all roses, it’s what I would do for free.

          I’ve driven refrigerated (refers), dry vans, flatbeds, tankers, end dumps, transfer dumps, straight trucks, truck and trailer, tractor and semi-trailer, doubles and forklifts of all sizes and types. I’ve been a dispatcher, yard hostler, truck driving instructor and recruiter.

          The trucking industry is cyclical and goes up and down with the economy. There have been good years and not so good years. In my experience, there has never been a time when an experienced driver couldn’t get a job, or a new driver couldn’t get started.

          I have always been able to get a job with benefits and good pay.

A little about the trucking industry

          There is a driver shortage which makes it easier to get a driving job, but there are some drawbacks. Trucking is not an easy career, for starters. There are long days, time away from home and family and dangerous driving conditions, to name just a few things.

          But many people who get started in trucking stay. Make no mistake, trucking isn’t for everyone. It is a lifestyle more than a career.

Changes in trucking

          There have been a lot of changes in the trucking industry. When I started trucking in 1985, drivers kept their driving time in paper logs. Now, electronic logging devices (ELD) must be installed in the trucks. These devices keep driver’s logs electronically.

          Hours of Service (HOS) rules have changed, also. Drivers could drive 10 hours and be off eight hours in 1985. They could also split their sleeper time in two. Tired drivers could stop and rest if they needed to, and still deliver on time.

          Drivers must now spend 11 hours driving and three hours loading and unloading for a total of 14 hours on duty. Then they must take 10 hours off duty for sleeping, showering and eating.

          Diesel engines have changed, too. They now have more power, burn cleaner and they don’t have to warm up before starting a trip.

          The old engines would get between 3 and 4 miles to the gallon. New engines get between 5 and 7 miles to the gallon.

          All class-8 heavy-duty tractors had manual transmissions. The driver had to double-clutch and match engine and transmission speed to shift gears. Now automated manual transmissions (AMT) have eliminated the need for manual shifting.

          It is certain that from now forward there will continue to be more changes in the industry. Upcoming changes include autonomous trucks that have no driver to all electric trucks that don’t require diesel fuel. There will always be innovation which require drivers to adapt to the new laws and technology.

          In all this change, there is one constant – there has been and will always be a need for the professional driver. Nothing can replace the skill and instincts of the experienced trucker.

How to get started as a truck driver

          There are two ways most drivers get started. The first is enrolling in a truck driving school. The second is learning on the job with a major carrier. The truck driving school is going to teach students pre-trip inspections, the basics of shifting, managing space, lane changes, turning and backing, etc.

          The first type of truck driving school is private, for-profit. They train student drivers for a fee.

          These schools usually include the Department of Transportation (DOT) physical and the written test for the Commercial Driver’s Learner’s Permit in the course. The cost for training can range between $3,000 and $7,000 or more, depending on the type and complexity of the training.

          After graduation, the individual must apply for inexperienced driver jobs on their own. There are plenty of openings, so there is not a huge problem getting a job with a major carrier.

          The second type of truck driving school is operated by a carrier. The cost for this type of school is deferred, in exchange for a commitment by the student to stay with the carrier for a certain amount of time.

          Carrier operated schools can require the student to have their DOT physical and CDLP before entering training. For example; Roehl offers training for brand new drivers and helps them get their physical and permit before coming to the school.

          In both cases, driver training usually lasts from four to six weeks. After passing the pre-trip, skills and driving tests, the student receives their Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).

          After graduation from truck driving school, the new hire is paired with a driver trainer where they learn the ropes. Training lasts from 3 to 6 months, depending on how quickly the trainee learns.

          After successfully completing training, the trainee is promoted to driver status. The new driver is then assigned their own truck.

Where to start a trucking career

          The starting place for most new drivers is in the long-haul segment. This is the segment of the industry that has the most difficulty finding and keeping truck drivers. Many carriers will hire inexperienced drivers and train them.

          Long-haul requires many hours in the truck, driving long distances. These drivers spend days and weeks away from home with 2 to 3 days off at a time. This kind of schedule is hard on the drivers and their families.

          It is no wonder that the long-haul segment has the hardest time keeping drivers in their trucks. But for new drivers, this is the best place to start and get experience.

No best time

          The best time to start a trucking career is in the years when the economy is cooking and drivers are scarce. In 2019 the economy started slowing, and 2020 will also see freight decline.

          After the slow times, the economy grows again. There is more freight to haul and driving jobs increase.

          There are always drivers who are retiring and others who are leaving the industry for other jobs. This leaves empty seats that trucking companies need to fill.

          Even in a slow economy there are goods that must be transported, and drivers are needed for the trucks. Truckers will always be in demand.

          For those who are serious about starting a trucking career, there is no best time to get into the industry. There is always going to be a need for good, experienced drivers with clean driving records.


          How much can a truck driver make?

          Beginning truckers can earn between $40,000 to $55,000 the first year, plus benefits. Experienced truckers average between $55,000 to $85,000 or more per year, plus benefits.

          Wages are related directly to the type of haul the company engages in. There are several different types of jobs that require different skill sets. The more specialized the skill set, the higher the pay.

Types trucking jobs

          Dry vans are the most common haul and the pay is about average. These trailers are a box on wheels with doors in back for loading and unloading.

          They carry dry goods on pallets that are easy to load and unload at a loading dock with a forklift. Most drivers start here and move around after they get experience.

          Freight haulers usually pull dry vans. They load everything from hazmat to specialized freight – anything that fits in the trailer and is legal on weight.

          Their pay is a little more because they handle a variety of cargo. These drivers can make several stops loading and unloading freight.

          Tankers are a special kind of trailer with unique characteristics. Because the liquid moves around in the trailer, they require specialized driving skills.

          This special haul transports everything from milk and orange juice in smooth bore tanks to gasoline, diesel and propane in baffled tanks. These liquids all require special handling skills, so the driver is paid more for this type of haul.

          Flatbeds are easiest to load and unload because they don’t have walls. They don’t require a loading dock and can be loaded and unloaded anywhere.

          But they require skill and knowledge in strapping and tarping. Because of the extra work involved with flatbeds, there is higher pay for the driver.

          Refrigerated trailers, usually called Refers, are used for hauling food, meat and anything that requires a constant temperature during transport (this can include explosives).

          These trailers have a refrigeration unit mounted to the front of the trailer directly behind the tractor. The unit is controlled by an adjustable thermostat mounted on the front-driver’s side of the trailer where it can be seen clearly in the driver’s side mirror.

          If the unit is not operating properly, a light comes on to warn the driver of the malfunction. Action must be taken immediately to preserve the load.

          Refers usually have two drivers called a team. While one is driving, the other is resting in the sleeper. The cargo gets to its destination more quickly with a team than it would with a single (solo) driver.

          The pay for refers is higher than for dry van. But since there are two drivers, the pay is split between them. Because of this pay split, husband and wife teams are common in this segment.

          Less than truckload (LTL), regional and local pick-up and delivery (P&D) are usually home daily. These drivers have regular routes with multiple stops and don’t travel far from the terminal. Pay for these drivers is usually by the hour and depends on the company and the cargo.

          There are other kinds of trucking jobs, with a variety of pay scales, that require specialized training and skills. A career can be tailored and designed specifically for the interests of the individual.


          After getting enough experience with a long-haul company, most drivers will migrate to jobs that keep them closer to home. Experienced drivers can also change divisions within their company or move to another carrier.

          There are truck driving jobs available for drivers with a minimum of two years or less driving experience. This is a sample from SimplyHired on March 4, 2020 that lists 108 truck driving jobs available.

Getting started

          Any qualified individual can get into trucking. The truck driver must be 21 years old, have a valid commercial driver’s license (CDL) and current medical certificate.

          Contact a few carriers to get information about what type of driver they are looking for. It will be easy to find out if they train or hire inexperienced drivers.

          There will always be a need for truck drivers. A new career as a trucker is within reach of anyone who qualifies.

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