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how one becomes a trucker - part 1, the CDL
i'm ready for my close up mr demille
Over the past few days I have had several inquiries as to the specifics of how training works with my company.  I also have a few folks on my f-list who are considering or planning to enter this profession in the near future, so I thought it might be appropriate to do some entries devoted to this subject.  A place where all the questions about the process can hopefully be addressed and, if not, comments can be left for further explanation.  In addition, should I acquire any new LJ friends in the future who begin asking these sorts of questions, I can always point them here.

Some people are hesitant to ask about my profession, assuming that I probably don't want to talk about work.  I've always loved "talking shop".  Even when I managed restaurants it was fun to find yourself in a group of your peers and talk in jargon and acronyms and everyone knows what you mean.  Coming across people outside of the restaurant business who were interested for more than 5 minutes about what you were talking was rare, though.  With this profession, at least you some of you guys seem genuinely interested as to the specifics of certain things.  So what follows is an incredibly truck-geek entry about the topic of obtaining a Commercial Driver's License (CDL), as a prelude to another entry devoted to the topic of training.

The over-the-road (OTR) trucking industry suffers from an insanely high turnover rate.  I thought turnover was bad in the fast-food industry, but it's ridiculous in trucking.  Of all new drivers coming into the industry, only 1 out of every 3 is expected to last one year - not just as an employee of the company for which they work, but the industry all together.  In this industry, a person with one year of experience is a pro.  Someone like me who has over two years under their belt with the same company is like gold.  This is largely due to the lifestyle factor.  There's an addage in the industry, that trucking is not just a job, it's a lifestyle.  When someone chooses to become an OTR driver, they are not only taking on a new career, they are accepting an entirely new lifestyle.  A lot of people either aren't prepared for this, or think they are then discover what it's really like to live out of a truck for a month before seeing the faces of loved-ones and friends for a few days before you start the cycle all over again.  I also suspect that a lot of people get discouraged with their level of skills and/or the company for which they work.  It took me well over a year before I became marginally satisfied with my skill... and I still suck at backing, but I manage.  And I've digressed.

The unprecedented surge in commerce generated by the same marvel of technology permitting you to read this, has lead to a greater demand for moving freight in this country, the Emerald City of consumerism.  Everytime you buy something on eBay or Amazon or your local store... a trucker goes to work.  95% of EVERYTHING sold and bought in this country, at some point in its journey, is in the care of an OTR driver.  If you are somehow of the impression that there is any semblance of insulated, localized economies still in existence in the 1st World, you are seriously delusional. 

In the old days, before the federal and state regulation of commercial trucking under the Department of Transportation (DOT), anyone could go to work as a trucker, and it was pretty much left up to the company to decide if they wanted to hire someone based on their skills or spend the time to teach them.  A lot of the truckers were good-old boys who learned to drive trucks from their pops or while working in other industries where there were road tractors available to learn-on.  With the introduction of the CDL, however, it by defualt created an entirely new industry - the trucking school industry.  The trucking companies made an attempt at running their own schools for a while, but most of them no longer do it.  The vacuum was filled by the concept of the trucking school, predicated on the industry-wide standard that most every trucking company in the country will reimburse whatever tuition you shell-out for your education.  Trucking schools come in all shapes and sizes, but most all of them will cost you somewhere between $4,000-$6,000 dollars.  Some schools are long, catering toward people who cannot quit their current job to learn a new skill.  Classes can last anywhere from 4-6 weeks.  Other schools, like the one I attended, was very compact and accelerated.  I received my CDL in 16 days from the first day of class to my road test for the state DOT. 

Regardless of the length of their classes, however, a trucking school only provides you with the bare minimum to pass the CDL testing procedures.  Trucking companies have then been left with one of two options: 1) only hire experienced drivers, which many do or 2) institute their own supplemental training programs post-hire.  The large companies such as Werner have no choice but to recruit new drivers.  They have too many trucks on the road and too many clients to support to be incredibly picky.  But they can institue their own training program and weed-out those who won't cut it and sharpen the skills of those who will.  Incidentally, Werner is one of the top 5 largest trucking companies in the U.S. with over 10,000 trucks on the road and a stable of nearly 20,000 trailers, just to give you an idea of the kind of numbers we're talking about here.  What's the largest trucking company?  Remember eBay, Amazon, etc?  You guessed it, UPS.  What can brown do for you?

So what exactly does one actually learn in trucking school?  As I said, trucking school teaches the bare minimum required to receive a CDL.  Most trucking schools, if not all, include the DOT physical examination required by the federal government in their tuition.  So that's covered, but what about the CDL tests themselves?  The DOT CDL test is comprised of two stages, just like a regular license: learner's permit and license.  Acquiring a CDL permit is very similar to receving a non-commercial permit.  It is a written test of highway rules and regulations concerning semi-tractor trailer operation.  There are whole sets of these that apply specifically to trucks: proper turning procedure, lane usage, railroad crossings, etc.  There are also questions on the test related to the basic mechanics of how a truck operates, a good bulk of it devoted to how the air brake system operates.  In addition to the "basic" permit there are several, additional endorsements one can receive as well.  One which most all trucking companies require is the HazMat endorsement (I have HazMat endorsement), which is obtained during the permit stage by taking an additional written test and covers federal regulation of the transportation of hazardous materials.  Other endorsements include the multiple combination and tanker endorsements.  I do not have these.  I cannot hop into a tanker truck and just start driving, nor am I endorsed to pull double and triple trailer combinations.

This is what the first part of a trucking school actually does.  They spend time in class prepping their students to get their learner's permit. Once they have received their permit, then they can begin the hands-on education of trucking, to prepare them for the second stage, the DOT road test required to receive your license.  The DOT road test is comprised of three parts: pre-trip inspection, yard manuevers, and a highway test. 

The pre-trip inspection is exactly what it sounds like.  What you may not know is that the federal government requires that a full pre-trip inspection be performed every day prior to driving the vehicle.  It must actually be logged in your log book that you performed it.  A "pre-trip" is a comprehensive inspection of the truck and trailer to insure that it is road-ready and safe to operate.  This includes things related to the braking systems (slack adjuster settings, brake linings/drums, air supply), vehicle lighting (headlamps, signals, markers, reflector devices), and all of the major components and parts (suspension devices, steering components, belts, fluids, tires, guages, mudflaps, fifth-wheel).  During the DOT pre-trip inspection, a prospective recipient must recite all of these things and physically point them out to the testing officer. ("Check the slack adjusters and make sure they are properly adjusted to allow no more than 1 inch of play in either direction blah blah blah"). 

The yard-manuevers vary slightly from state to state, but they all basically assess them same skills, basic truck/trailer manuevering and control.  It assesses whether an individual understands and properly perceives the physical manner in which a truck and trailer operates.  In the state of Kentucky, the yard manuevers consists of 5 basic manuevers/skills: forward alley, backward alley, sight-side parallell back, blind-side parallel back, and sight-side 45 degree back.  Since we're being truck-geeks, here we go:

Forward Alley:  This manuever actually tests two skills. The first of these is the primary skill, the ability of the driver to manuever his vehicle through a straight, 12-foot wide alley of cones, without straying to either side, at idle speed for a distance of about 200 feet.  This is a rather simple skill, driving a truck in a straight line at low speed.  I could teach any of you to do this in about 1 minute.  The other skill is that at the end of the alley, there is a 1-foot wide rectangluar "box" drawn on the ground.  The driver must stop the vehicle at this box, with the bumper in between the lines.  Trickier than it sounds since, you can't see the box once you get within twenty feet of it. It's obscured by the hood of your truck.  It tests the driver's perception of where the front of his truck is in relationship to things at ground level, like the rear bumper of your car at a red light.

Backward Alley: This manuever begeins immediately after the bumper box.  You back the truck and trailer out of the alley, without encroaching the cones on either side.  This tests the basic skill of straight-line backing.  While sometimes difficult to teach to somone who's never pulled a trailer of any sort, it is easily mastered once the basic concept is grasped.

Sight-side/Blind-side Parallel:  Truckers refer to the sides of their truck/trailer as the sight-side and the blind-side (driver and passenger side, respectively).  This is actually a misnomer since the same "sight" is afforded by the mirrors on both sides.  The difference is that you have some additional (if limited) sight out your sight-side window.  You are also further away from your mirrors on the blind-side, so discerning objects in the convex "spot mirror" is much, much harder.  For this reason, this side is considered to be "blind".  The parallel manuever required of the Kentucky DOT test refers to the trailer, not the truck and trailer.  Believe it or not, parallel parking an entire truck AND trailer is easier than only parallel parking the trailer.  When you are parallel parking the trailer, you only have enough space for the trailer. Your truck ends up at a 90 degree angle with the trailer, basically forming a letter "L" out of the two vehicles by the end of the manuever, with your trailer in the space and your truck sticking out of the space at a right-angle.  You have to perform this manuever without "blowing out" the imaginary 3 walls of the space, cordoned off by cones and a perfect manuever ends with you having your trailer bumper within a one foot "box" similar to the forward alley manuever.  As one would imagine, the sight-side and blind-side versions of the manuever refers to the which side you "setup on". When you approach the parallel parking space on your sight-side, it is the sight-side parallel and vice-versa.  I don't know why the DOT assesses this skill since it is something you seldom use, if ever, in your day-to-day work.

Sight-side 45 degree back:  Truckers typically just call it "the 45", because it is arguably the single most used backing manuever.  You use the manuever to back into a space that is perpendicular to the lane of travel, like parking in a truckstop or backing into a dock.  Most situations like this do not have enough space in front of the space to just line up directly in front of it, so you have to line up at a 45 degree angle from the space then turn the trailer into it, backwards, then bring your truck back in line as you slide into the space.  The basic mecahnics of the manuever are not incredibly difficult to learn, but they are difficult to master.  Oh, and if it's not done sight-side, "You did it blind" or "Blinded it"  and are a bad mofo. 

Finally, there is the highway test which assesses the individual's composite skills as a driver in a real-world setting with traffic, intersections, and a small variety of turns.  These skills include their ability to shift both up and down progressively, using mirrors for visual scanning, and the application of basic traffic laws which apply to trucks (which lane to turn from/into at intersections, railroad crossings, etc.). 

Upon passing your road test you are issued a CDL by the state in which you successfully passed the test.  If you do not pass the test, you can usually re-take it in a week.  Most trucking schools will continue to support their students after a failure with additional training and allowing them to use their truck for the re-take.  I'm sure there are some people who just never develop the ability to operate the vehicles and eventually they are cut-off by the school, but I'm sure that is a somewhat rare occasion.  Once you have your CDL, you are ready to go to work!

Be on the look-out for Part Two, coming soon to a Livejournal near you!


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this was totally awesome and informative, and really shows off your writing skillz as well. impressive.

I told you I was interested in getting into some sort of internet publishing ;-). I'm kind of priming myself here in my personal journal and with goodmorningcaptain.com for some future undertaking... My writing skeelz have deteriorated somewhat over the past few years from lack.. I'm kinda flexing my muscles with these and getting my strength back. :)

Thanks for the informative post.

You and stormlight811 are two folks I had specifically in mind when I began writing this. I hope it, and the forthcoming entry, are helpful. :)

I drove for about 10 months as well. Ended up getting back into IT. I miss it every day :) soopa can tell ya about that ;)

Betwee then 2 of us I think we can answer damn near anything. :)

This one was extremely helpful. Upon re-reading it and looking at some other on line resources (www.classadrivers.com, excellent resource, BTW), I wanted to get your (and hockeyfag's) opinion on a few things.

1.) PTDI Certification for schools. Is it really that important? I ask because I've heard BAD things about many of the "CDL mills;" also because I've heard you will have a wider variety of companies to choose to work for if you go to a certified school. Is this true?

2.) My manual transmission skills are really rusty (haven't driven one in 9-10 years). But does that really matter so much? I'm sure driving a truck is completely different than driving a car with a manual transmission anyway. Any thoughts on this?

Sorry to bombard you guys with questions!

1) I couldn't tell you anything about a PTDI vs a non-PTDI school. I'm sure it carries some weight if a trucking company is considering hiring someone and they aren't familiar with the school. Alot of companies send recruiters to particular schools to farm potential employees based on their reputation or past performance. This is actually how I got hooked up with Werner. My school worked closely with Werner and TMC; a recruiter came by from both companies and talked with the latest crop. Werner even pre-hired students from my school, before they ever started class - which is what I had done. I knew I had a job waiting for me before I ever payed my tuition. :) But you are correct that there ARE a lot of CDL mills out there.

2) Your lack of transmission skills in a passenger vehicle will actually be a benefit to you. People who drive manual transmissions every day in their personal vehicles have a much harder time adjusting to the double-clutching and synchronization of road tractors that people who don't or never driven a stick. I'm now the reverse of that, I can't drive a passenger vehicle with a manual transmission! Well I can, but I'm trying to do big-truck things like float gears or give it RPM's on the downshift and have to remind myself that I don't have to do that. :)

Incidentally, while I can't guarantee it, there is an account that Werner has that would be perfect for you and where you live. It's the account for which I work. I haul nothing but cabinets out of plants located in Indiana and Illinois. You typically stick to the Great Lakes area of Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan with some occasional trips to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut as a solo driver. The downside is you touch the freight (which doesn't bother me, but it does some folk) but the upside is that you're home every weekend and are guaranteed $700/wk minimum, whether you get the miles or not (although that seldom happens, you're almost always over the guarantee). Oh yeah, and the mileage rate begins at .33/mile as opposed to Werner's entry rate of .25/mile. With as much time you spend in central Indiana on this account, you could probably get a night home during the week every now and then, too. I say I can't guarantee it because, my last trainee was from Anderson, IN and was interested in getting on the account, but when he called about it, they told him they weren't looking for drivers at the moment and to check back. But my first trainee did get on this account, as did I when I first came out of training. If it's something that appealed to you, you could always work in another divison until something came open on the cabinet account. :) Just something to chew on.

That account sounds pretty decent, as predictable and (somewhat) frequent home time is kind of a major factor for me (I'm married and have a daughter). Actually, it will probably be the final deal-maker/breaker.

I actually talked to a recruiter from a school this morning and she mentioned similar things about Werner that you have (concerning the home time), but I don't know if she was talking about that same account. She had positive things to say about Werner in general. I had been looking at Roehl as they claim to offer some of the best home time policies in the industry (although not according to her).

I'm assuming an account like that is considered regional? Or do you hit a wide enough area to be considered otr? I wouldn't mind having something more regional but I don't want to end up screwing myself in the long run by not getting otr experience. Or is that even a valid concern?

Anyway, the school I've been talking to is Commercial Driver Training Consultants, Inc. Do you know anything about them, perchance? They work with a number of companies, the main ones being Arrow, Covenant, National Distributors, Old Dominion, Roehl, Stevens Transport, TMC, Transport America and Werner. They offer the opportunity to get pre-hired before spending any money on tuition. They also offer a weekend program. I may go over there to fill out an application later this week (unless I happen to hear something really terrible about the place).

Oh yeah, you alleviated most of my concern about the manual transmission issue and you've been a great help in general. Thanks for that :)

The dedicated account I am on is somewhat regional, but there are plenty of opportunities to see the west and east coasts as well, but typically you stay in the Great Lakes area...

I actually spoke briefly with the guy I trained who couldn't get on the account because they didn' need drivers at the moment. He's in the Midwest Regional division... he's home every weekend and the pay has a sliding scale, from .26/mile to .44/mile... he said most of his trips are in the low .30's...

Good luck to you with doing it with a family if you decide to go that way. I mean I know there are lots of family guys who do it, but if I had a home life, I can't imagine I'd be happy for very long with this lifestyle... but that's me :)

that was awesome! thank you. i really wish i had my CDL in the event that the academic job market ever "goes" soft *cough*.

my grandpa was a trucker. not OTR, just short haul. but he was such a meek, mild canuk that it always amuses me to think of him driving a big truck!

truckers and bikers. two groups i always feel safe with.

That was a very interesting narrative. I have some questions.

- What is the rationale for trucks using air brakes as opposed to fluid ones? Are they more effective for vehicles with greater mass?
- What sort of extra training is required to drive tankers and B-doubles?
- What level of mechanical ability is required from the driver? Do they have to know how to change a wheel, or do they have roadside assistance for all that sort of stuff?
- What's the secret to backing a trailer into a dock, and why can't I even back a trailer up properly that's attached to a car? :)
- With respect to being competent for the CDL, I wonder how someone like your most recent trainee could have passed a road exam and still do the things he does and asks the questions he asks.

1) Air brakes are used over hydraulic brakes because of the nature of combination vehicles. In single unit vehicles, hydraulic systems make more sense, because the braking system is self-contained in a single vehicle. But having an air brake system makes more sense when dealing with multiple vehicles (such as railroad trains and tractor-trailers) because of the constant swapping of vehicles on and off the powered unit. The addition and removal of trailer(s) is less messy and the replenishment of lost mass for compression is always renewable, requiring no maintenance.

2) Getting the crednentials to drive doubles, triples, and tankers is no different than a Class A, it's just a different "endorsement", which basically means that during the permit phase there are additional examinations and you must highway test in the particular vehicle type during the licensing phase.

3) As far as mechanical ability goes, as a company driver it is minimal. My company actually forbids any unauthorized work to be performed on their equipment outside basic maintenance like changing wipers and replenishing fluids. Technically, I'm not even allowed to install my own CB radio. My company has entire department devoted to road breakdown, to field phone calls and Qualcomm satellite messages from drivers with mechanical failure. They then contact an appropriate truck repair place in the area to come rescure us.

4) Backing secret? Lots and lots of practice. The thing about a trailer on a car, there's actually a couple reasons for it:

- the pivot on the trailer hitch isn't very far from the axles on the trailer, so changes in movement transer to the trailer very quickly as opposed to, say, a 53ft. trailer

- the pivot is behind the rear axle of the car instead of on top of them where you would have more control.

5) In Jason's defense, he took his CDL training over 8 months ago then did nothing with it in all that time except drive straight-trucks for a local outfit there in southern Illinois. So, for the moment, I'm willing to work with him and hopefully get him up to speed and chalk it up to rustiness. Arguably some of the things that come out of his mouth have nothing to do with rustiness, but I'm willing to give him the beneift of doubt.

The real question is: why did you decide to get your CDL in the first place?

I thought that was already obvious, so I could stalk unsuspecting young women...

Actually, I had grown weary of my career as a general manager in the restaurant business and I wanted to travel. Also, given my financial obligations, whatever career move I made had to be comparable or better than my current salary as a GM. There aren't many entry-level career opportunites where one can do that.

I had nothing tying me down so I moved out of the hose I was renting, sold nearly everything I owned, and became a trucker driver :)

So when you go "home", where do you go?

A network of friends and family, usually my parents. Sometimes I'll even just crash in the truck. This is what I've been doing for the past couple of years since I began. It's hard to justify spending 500-600/mo on a rent payment when I'm never home.

It does get old, however, so I'm actually in the early stages of moving into a place semi-permanent with my brother. So I can stop sleeping in spare bedrooms and on couches, but it's only gonna cost me $100/mo. ;-)

(Deleted comment)
Glad you found it helpful. Yeah, I don't know that I can help much with O/O questions since I've always been a company driver. I actually have no desire to be an O/O... I've considered it. But I'm lazy and that just seems like way to much of a headache than it's worth.

1) I am lazy


2) It is a lot of headache. :)

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