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!