How to become a professional truck driver

Love driving, long road trips, big engines, and the freedom of virtually never having to go sit in a cubical ever again? The trucking industry booming and while it's not an easy lifestyle, you can make a solid living while seeing new parts of the country. Here's some tips and advice for aspiring long haul truck drivers.

Before anything else, your first step should be to decide what type of truck driver job you want. While many people lump the entire industry into one pile, there are significant differences between long haul, regional, and local trucking. Even more than that, you'll need to decide what type of equipment appeals to you most. For instance, while the mechanics of "driving a truck" might be similar between a semi truck pulling a 40-foot box trailer and a fuel tanker but the training, certifications, skills, and routes are going to be dramatically different. For this article, were' going to focus mostly on long-haul trucking with standard cargo loads.

Education and Certifications Needed to Become a Truck Driver

While there is no specific education requirement to become a truck driver, most companies will require at least a high school diploma. Additionally, you will need to obtain a commercial driver's license aka a CDL. 

Your journey towards obtaining a CDL will be similar to how you likely got your personal driver's license in your teen years. For instance, you will need to enroll in truck driver training classes. Luckily, there is such a high demand for new truck drivers that many companies will offer "pre-hire" contracts and there are various opportunities for scholarships and financial aid support too.

After you have completed training, obtained your CDL as well as various endorsements (for instance Class A for articulated trucks and an endorsement for using air brakes) and passed a physical exam, you are ready to go start your career as a truck driver.

tractor trailer semi trucks lined up for loads

Do you Want to Be an Owner-Operator or a Company Driver?

Most truck drivers fall into one of two categories - Owner Operator, or Company Driver, with many actually leasing their trucks instead of outright ownership. From a high-level perspective, the difference is obvious. Owner Operators have full control over their rigs and have the freedom to initiate contracts, pick up extra loads, and decide exactly how much they want to work as well as where they want to go. Company drivers don't have that freedom - but they also do have the high overhead of loan and lease payments. Possibly most important for many drivers is the fact that the job ends when you finish your load work at the terminal.

As an Owner Operator, you are responsible for running a business that can seemingly never end. That requires you to manage cash flow and so the big check you get for delivering a load will need to cover expenses for your truck as well as your costs of living. While there services out there such as transportation factoring that helps to smooth out these issues, becoming a professional truck driver is something that requires constant attention.

It's Not Just Driving a Truck

One of the trends in the automotive space recently has been an emphasis on eliminating the driver. While that might be appealing for personal automobiles, truck drivers do a lot more than simply driving a truck from one spot to the next. There's paperwork to do, routes to plan, negotiations for arrival and departure times, and when things go wrong - you still need a human to be able to check the load.

On top of that, you are also responsible for managing paperwork, tracking fuel consumption rates, navigating complex routes to arrive at the terminal exactly within your window and more.

 interior of semi truck cab

Maintaining Health and Fitness on the Road is Essential

Truck drivers have gotten a bad reputation over the years as being old, dirty, and overweight. While there are certainly those in the industry that fit that description, to be successful you need to stay healthy. That means making smart food choices when you stop to fuel up the truck, such as selecting a salad or fresh fruit for a snack instead of a burger and an energy drink. It also means that you need to make sure to get proper exercise even though you're likely to be spending long hours on the road.

How Much Can You Earn as a Truck Driver?

In 2015, the median pay for a truck driver was about $40,000 in the United States (roughly $19.36 per hour). Owner Operators can earn an average salary of more than $140,000 though - but remember, there's a lot of expenses coming out of that. Those expenses include: insurance, truck loan / lease payments, maintenance, fuel costs, taxes, and more. That leaves the average take-home salary of just a big higher than a company driver. 

Life as a professional truck driver isn't for everyone. It's tough work, but for those who love life on the road and are willing to work hard running an independent business, it's a great opportunity to chase the American Dream. 

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