Truck drivers generally are distinguished by the distance they travel. Over-the-road drivers, also known as long-distance drivers or tractor-trailer drivers, haul freight over long distances in large trucks and tractor-trailer rigs that are usually diesel-powered. Depending on the specific operation, over-the-road drivers also load and unload the shipments and make minor repairs to vehicles. Short-haul drivers or pickup and delivery drivers operate trucks that transport materials, merchandise, and equipment within a limited area, usually a single city or metropolitan area. There are approximately 3.2 million truck drivers employed in the United States.
History of Truck Driver Career
The first trucks were nothing more than converted automobiles. In 1904, there were only about 500 trucks in the United States. At that time, there was little need for goods to be transported across the country. Manufacturing was such that the same products were produced all over the nation, many in small “mom and pop” operations so that even small towns could supply all the food, clothing, tools and other materials that people needed. Today, manufacturing is centralized and “mom and pop” stores are all but gone, increasing the need for a way to move consumer goods to every corner of the country.
In World War I, the U.S. Army used trucks for the first time to haul equipment and supplies over terrain that was not accessible by train. After the war, the domestic use of trucks increased rapidly. In the 1920s, the nation became more mobile as streets and highways improved. American businesses and industries were growing at an unprecedented rate, and trucks became established as a reliable way of transporting goods. In fact, trucking companies began to compete with railroads for the business of shipping freight long distances.
Since World War II, other innovations have shaped the trucking industry, including improvements in the designs of truck bodies and the mechanical systems in trucks. Tank trucks were built to carry fuel, and other trucks were designed specifically for transporting livestock, produce, milk, eggs, meat, and heavy machine parts. The efficiency of trucks was further increased by the development of the detachable trailer. Depending on what needed to be shipped, a different trailer could be hooked up to the tractor.
In addition to these technological advances, the establishment of the interstate highway system in 1956 allowed trucks to deliver shipments with increased efficiency. Along with the development of new trucks with better gas mileage, trucking companies now could offer their services to businesses at cheaper rates than railroads.
Trucking today is central to the nation’s transportation system, moving dry freight, refrigerated materials, liquid bulk materials, construction materials, livestock, household goods, and other cargo. In fact, nearly all goods are transported by truck at some point after they are produced. Some drivers move manufactured goods from factories to distribution terminals, and after the goods arrive at destination terminals, other drivers deliver the goods to stores and homes. Certain carriers also provide shipping services directly from the supplier to the customer.
The Job of Truck Drivers
Truckers drive trucks of all sizes, from small straight trucks and vans to tanker trucks and tractors with multiple trailers. The average tractor-trailer rig is no more than 102 inches wide, excluding the mirrors, 13 feet and six inches tall, and just under 70 feet in length. The engines in these vehicles range from 250 to 600 horsepower.
Over-the-road drivers operate tractor-trailers and other large trucks that are often diesel-powered. These drivers generally haul goods and materials over long distances and frequently drive at night. Whereas many other truck drivers spend a considerable portion of their time loading and unloading materials, over-the-road drivers spend most of their working time driving.
At the terminal or warehouse where they receive their load, drivers get ready for long-distance runs by checking over the vehicle to make sure all the equipment and systems are functioning and that the truck is loaded properly and has the necessary fuel, oil, and safety equipment.
Some over-the-road drivers travel the same routes repeatedly and on a regular schedule. Other companies require drivers to do unscheduled runs and work when dispatchers call with an available job. Some long-distance runs are short enough that drivers can get to the destination, remove the load from the trailer, replace it with another load, and return home all in one day. Many runs, however, take up to a week or longer, with various stops. Some companies assign two drivers to long runs, so that one can sleep while the other drives. This method ensures that the trip will take the shortest amount of time possible.
In addition to driving their trucks long distances, over-the-road drivers have other duties. They must inspect their vehicles before and after trips, prepare reports on accidents, and keep daily logs. They may load and unload some shipments or hire workers to help with these tasks at the destination. Drivers of long-distance moving vans, for example, do more loading and unloading work than most other long-haul drivers. Drivers of vehicle-transport trailer trucks move new automobiles or trucks from manufacturers to dealers and also have additional duties. At plants where the vehicles are made, transport drivers drive new vehicles onto the ramps of transport trailers. They secure the vehicles in place with chains and clamps to prevent them from swaying and rolling. After driving to the destination, the drivers remove the vehicles from the trailers.
Over-the-road drivers must develop a number of skills that differ from the skills needed for operating smaller trucks. Because trailer trucks vary in length and number of wheels, skilled operators of one type of trailer may need to undergo a short training period if they switch to a new type of trailer. Over-the-road drivers must be able to maneuver and judge the position of their trucks and must be able to back their huge trailers into precise positions.
Local truck drivers generally operate the smaller trucks and transport a variety of products. They may travel regular routes or routes that change as needed. Local drivers include delivery workers who supply fresh produce to grocery stores and drivers who deliver gasoline in tank trucks to gas stations. Other local truck drivers, such as those who keep stores stocked with baked goods, may sell their employers’ products as well as deliver them to customers along a route. These drivers are known as route drivers or route-sales drivers.
Often local truck drivers receive their assignments and delivery forms from dispatchers at the company terminal each day. Some drivers load goods or materials on their trucks, but in many situations dockworkers have already loaded the trucks in such a way that the unloading can be accomplished along the route with maximum convenience and efficiency.
Local drivers must be skilled at maneuvering their vehicles through the worst driving conditions, including bad weather and traffic-congested areas. The ability to pull into tight parking spaces, negotiate narrow passageways, and back up to loading docks is essential.
Some drivers have helpers who travel with them and assist in unloading at delivery sites, especially if the loads are heavy or bulky or when there are many deliveries scheduled. Drivers of some heavy trucks, such as dump trucks and oil tank trucks, operate mechanical levers, pedals, and other devices that assist with loading and unloading cargo. Drivers of moving vans generally have a crew of helpers to aid in loading and unloading customers’ household goods and office equipment.
Once a local driver reaches his or her destination, he or she sometimes obtains a signature acknowledging that the delivery has been made and may collect a payment from the customer. Some drivers serve as intermediaries between the company and its customers by responding to customer complaints and requests.
Each day, local drivers have to make sure that their deliveries have been made correctly. At the end of the day, they turn in their records and the money they collected. Local drivers may also be responsible for doing routine maintenance on their trucks to keep them in good working condition. Otherwise, any mechanical problems are reported to the maintenance department for repair.
Truck Driver Career Requirements
High school students interested in working as truck drivers should take courses in driver training and automobile mechanics. In addition, some bookkeeping, mathematics, and business courses will teach methods that help in keeping accurate records of customer transactions.
Drivers must know and meet the standards set by both state and federal governments for the particular work they do and the type of vehicle they drive. In some companies, new employees can informally learn the skills appropriate for the kind of driving they do from experienced drivers. They may ride with and watch other employees of the company, or they may take a few hours of their own time to learn from an experienced driver. For jobs driving some kinds of trucks, companies require new employees to attend classes that range from a few days to several weeks.
One of the best ways to prepare for a job driving large trucks is to take a tractor-trailer driver training course. Programs vary in the amount of actual driving experience they provide. Programs that are certified by the Professional Truck Driver Institute of America meet established guidelines for training and generally provide good preparation for drivers. Another way to determine whether programs are adequate is to check with local companies that hire drivers and ask for their recommendations. Completing a certified training program helps potential truck drivers learn specific skills, but it does not guarantee a job. Vehicles and the freight inside trucks can represent a large investment to companies that employ truck drivers. Therefore, they seek to hire responsible and reliable drivers in order to protect their investment. For this reason, many employers set various requirements of their own that exceed state and federal standards.
Certification or Licensing
Truck drivers must meet federal requirements and any requirements established by the state where they are based. All drivers must obtain a state commercial driver’s license. Truck drivers involved in interstate commerce must meet requirements of the U.S. Department of Transportation. They must be at least 21 years old and pass a physical examination that requires good vision and hearing, normal blood pressure, and normal use of arms and legs (unless the applicant qualifies for a waiver). Drivers must then pass physicals every two years and meet other requirements, including a minimum of 20/40 vision in each eye and no diagnosis of insulin-dependent diabetes or epilepsy.
Many drivers work with little supervision, so they need to have a mature, responsible attitude toward their job. In jobs where drivers deal directly with company customers, it is especially important for the drivers to be pleasant, courteous, and able to communicate well with people. Helping a customer with a complaint can mean the difference between losing and keeping a client.
Exploring Truck Driver Career
High school students interested in becoming truck drivers may be able to gain experience by working as drivers’ helpers during summer vacations or in part-time delivery jobs. Many people get useful experience in driving vehicles while they are serving in the armed forces. It may also be helpful to talk with employers of local or over-the-road truck drivers or with the drivers themselves.
The Internet provides a forum for prospective truck drivers to explore their career options. Two online magazines — Overdrive (http://www.etrucker.com/) and Land Line Magazine (http://www.landlinemag.com/) — provide a look at issues in the trucking industry and a list of answers to frequently asked questions for people interested in trucking careers.
Over-the-road and local drivers may be employed by either private carriers or for-hire carriers. Food store chains and manufacturing plants that transport their own goods are examples of private carriers. There are two kinds of for-hire carriers: trucking companies serving the general public (common carriers) and trucking firms transporting goods under contract to certain companies (contract carriers).
Drivers who work independently are known as owner-operators. They own their own vehicles and often do their own maintenance and repair work. They must find customers who need goods transported, perhaps through personal references or by advertising their services. For example, many drivers find contract jobs through “Internet truck stops,” where drivers can advertise their services and companies can post locations of loads they need transported. Some independent drivers establish long-term contracts with just one or two clients, such as trucking companies.
Prospective over-the-road drivers can gain commercial driving experience as local truck drivers and then attend a tractor trailer–driver training program. Driving an intercity bus or dump truck is also suitable experience for aspiring over-the-road truck drivers. Many newly hired long-distance drivers start by filling in for regular drivers or helping out when extra trips are necessary. They are assigned regular work when a job opens up.
Many truck drivers hold other jobs before they become truck drivers. Some local drivers start as drivers’ helpers, loading and unloading trucks and gradually taking over some driving duties. When a better driving position opens up, helpers who have shown they are reliable and responsible may be promoted. Members of the armed forces who have gained appropriate experience may get driving jobs when they are discharged.
Job seekers may apply directly to firms that use drivers. Listings of specific job openings are often posted at local offices of the state employment service and in the classified ads in newspapers. Many jobs, however, are not posted. Looking in the yellow pages under trucking and moving and storage can provide names of specific companies to solicit. Also, large manufacturers and retailing companies sometimes have their own fleets. Many telephone calls and letters may be required, but they can lead to a potential employer. Personal visits, when appropriate, sometimes get the best results.
Some over-the-road drivers who stay with their employers advance by becoming safety supervisors, driver supervisors, or dispatchers. Many over-the-road drivers look forward to going into business for themselves by acquiring their own tractor-trailer rigs. This step requires a significant initial investment and a continuing good income to cover expenses. Like many other small business owners, independent drivers sometimes have a hard time financially. Those who are their own mechanics and have formal business training are in the best position to do well.
Local truck drivers can advance by learning to drive specialized kinds of trucks or by acquiring better schedules or other job conditions. Some may move into positions as dispatchers and, with sufficient experience, they eventually become supervisors or terminal managers. Other local drivers decide to become over-the-road drivers to receive higher wages.
Wages of truck drivers vary according to their employer, size of the truck they drive, product being hauled, geographical region, and other factors. Drivers who are employed by for-hire carriers have higher earnings than those who work independently or for private carriers.
Pay rates for over-the-road truck drivers are often figured using a cents-per-mile rate. Most companies pay between 20 and 30 cents per mile, but large companies are advertising higher rates to attract good drivers. Drivers employed by J. B. Hunt, the nation’s largest publicly held trucking company, can earn up to 41 cents a mile and earn an average of $1,000 a week.
Tractor-trailer drivers usually have the highest earnings; average hourly pay generally increases with the size of the truck. Drivers in the South have lower earnings than those in the Northeast and West. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that median hourly earnings of heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers were $16.48 in 2005. Wages ranged from less than $10.51 to more than $24.89 an hour (from $21,860 to $51,780 a year for full-time work). Median hourly earnings of light or delivery services truck drivers were $11.92, and wages ranged from less than $7.35 to more than $20.93 an hour ($15,290 to $43,540 a year). Median hourly earnings of driver/sales workers, including commission, were $9.66, and wages ranged from less than $5.96 to more than $19.81 an hour ($12,400 to $41,200 a year).
In addition to their wages, the majority of truck drivers receive benefits, many of which are determined by agreements between their unions and company management. The benefits may include health insurance coverage, pension plans, paid vacation days, and work uniforms.
Although there is work for truck drivers in even the smallest towns, most jobs are located in and around larger metropolitan areas. About a third of all drivers work for for-hire carriers, and another third work for private carriers. Less than 10 percent are self-employed.
Even with modern improvements in cab design, driving trucks is often a tiring job. Although some local drivers work 40-hour weeks, many work eight hours a day, six days a week, or more. Some drivers, such as those who bring food to grocery stores, often work at night or very early in the morning. Drivers who must load and unload their trucks may do a lot of lifting, stooping, and bending.
It is common for over-the-road truck drivers to work at least 50 hours a week. However, federal regulations require that drivers cannot be on duty for more than 60 hours in any seven-day period. Furthermore, after drivers have driven for 10 hours, they must be off duty for at least eight hours before they can drive again. Drivers often work the maximum allowed time to complete long runs in as little time as possible. In fact, most drivers drive 10 to 12 hours per day and make sure they have proper rest periods. A driver usually covers between 550 and 650 miles daily. The sustained driving, particularly at night, can be fatiguing, boring, and sometimes very stressful, as when traffic or weather conditions are bad.
Local drivers may operate on schedules that easily allow a social and family life, but long-distance drivers often find that difficult. They may spend a considerable amount of time away from their homes and families, including weekends and holidays. After they try it, many people find they do not want this way of life. On the other hand, some people love the lifestyle of the over-theroad driver. Many families are able to find ways to work around the schedule of a truck-driving spouse. In some cases, the two people assigned to a long-distance run are a husband and wife team.
Truck Driver Career Outlook
The employment of truck drivers is expected to increase about as fast as the average rate for all other occupations through 2014. Employment of light and heavy truck drivers will be faster than the average, because of continually increasing amounts of consumer goods that need to be transported quickly and safely. Employment of driver/sales workers will be slower than the average as companies move more sales positions into central offices.
The need for trucking services is directly linked to the growth of the nation’s economy. During economic downturns, when the pace of business slows, some drivers may receive fewer assignments and thus have lower earnings, or they may be laid off. Drivers employed in some vital industries, such as food distribution, are less affected by an economic recession. On the other hand, people who own and operate their own trucks usually suffer the most.
A large number of driver jobs become available each year. Most openings develop when experienced drivers transfer to other fields or leave the workforce entirely. There is a considerable amount of turnover in the field. Beginners are able to get many of these jobs. Competition is expected to remain strong for the more desirable jobs, such as those with large companies or the easiest routes.