The U.S. depends heavily on truck drivers. Without them, items ranging from critically essential supplies to everyday necessities wouldn’t be so readily available in stores, hospitals or doctors offices. Yet as important as drivers are to the flow of goods and supply chains, the trucking industry is now facing challenges with a severe driver shortage. This has led to increased strain on supply chains, which are already stretched thin due to disruptions caused by COVID-19.
While a truck driver shortage creates obstacles for the businesses that depend on drivers for deliveries, it has opened doors for others. Because of this shortage, new employment opportunities are available, which might not have been as easy to secure beforehand. As unemployment benefits have either ended or are ending soon for millions of Americans, or as many are contemplating major career changes, now presents a prime opportunity to consider a new career as a truck driver.
Why is there a truck driver shortage?
Why is the truck driver shortage being felt so much right now? One reason is an increase in demand for moving goods. In 2019, U.S. truck drivers moved almost 12 billion tons of freight across the country, which has steadily increased each year for the last five years. The amount of freight moving across the highways highlights the strong need for truck drivers. As the demand for qualified drivers has increased, a truck driver shortage has emerged.
Another reason for the driver shortage is the lifestyle. Long-haul drivers are expected to spend several nights away from home as critical deliveries take place across the country. As drivers are on the road for extended periods, it can take a toll on family life, sleep patterns, proper nutrition and personal finances.
There is also a large gender gap within the trucking industry. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 90% of trucking positions are held by male drivers, although the number of female drivers is beginning to increase. The age gap is particularly wide too, with the majority of drivers being aged 45 to 64. As older drivers near retirement, the need for qualified drivers will likely only increase.
Becoming a truck driver
Becoming a truck driver usually requires a high school diploma, completion of truck driving school and a commercial driving license.
What does the job entail?
Long-haul truck drivers move a large number of goods across the country, usually tens of thousands of pounds at a time. In most cases, these drivers transport goods across state lines. Not only are the drivers responsible for hauling goods, but they must obey all traffic laws, report any delivery issues, keep a log of all miles driven and inspect paperwork throughout the trip. There are also delivery drivers for shorter distances, usually within a local region or assigned area, who have similar job responsibilities.
What are the requirements?
Becoming and working as a truck driver usually entails a few different checkpoints, in addition to the base requirement of having a high school diploma or GED.
One of the first steps is to complete truck driving training, which is typically paid for out of pocket. The training is offered at truck driving schools or may be available at a local community college. The school will usually include courses on driving large trucks on highways or crowded streets and teach federal highway laws and regulations. Training typically lasts a few weeks to a few months and once completed, you earn a completion certificate. Once hired by a trucking company, the company usually provides several weeks of on-the-job training so you can learn specifics about the company and routes.
Long-haul drivers are required to obtain a commercial driver’s license, commonly called a CDL. To obtain a CDL, you must pass a written test and driving test to show your understanding of operating the truck. The exact testing and qualifications vary for each state, so it’s important to confirm the state requirements. Once you have obtained your CDL, you could upgrade your license to qualify for specialty driving — known as endorsements — to transport specialized items, such as hazardous materials. A CDL must be maintained, which requires a physical exam every two years.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires commercial drivers to carry appropriate commercial insurance for each of their vehicles. A driver may need to obtain this on their own or work with a trucking company. Long-haul drivers should work with a qualified and knowledgeable licensed insurance agent to review what insurance coverage is necessary. There are additional insurance requirements for some materials, such as hazardous materials, in which case specialized coverage may be required. Other driver jobs, such as those on local routes, are likely covered by regular auto insurance policies. However, you should verify the coverage needed with a licensed agent.
If you choose to work for a company, the company will likely provide you with a truck. Otherwise, if you want to be an owner-operator (or self-employed truck driver), you will need to purchase or lease your own truck. Being an owner-operator allows you to work independently of any one company. Other necessary equipment may include items to keep your paperwork organized as you are on the road, toiletries and travel essentials like a flashlight and water. You will also likely need items to make the truck a more comfortable place, such as proper bedding, since you will be spending most hours of the day between driving and the sleeper cab.
5. Work schedule
The FMCSA also regulates the number of hours a long-haul driver can work. Drivers are not permitted to drive more than 14 hours straight a day and are required 10 hours of downtime in between working periods. If a driver works a rolling seven-day period, they are not allowed to drive more than 60 hours before taking the required downtime. For drivers who work within a rolling eight-day period, the cutoff is 70 hours. However, truckers are usually required to work nights, holidays and weekends.
Why become a truck driver?
In addition to fulfilling a critically important role to society in transporting goods, becoming a truck driver has several other benefits.
What are the benefits?
The median yearly salary for a heavy truck driver, which includes long-haul truckers, is $47,130, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Some drivers earn more than $69,480 in a year. With the critical driver shortage in mind, it may even be more likely to find open positions with a signing bonus.
As a truck driver, you have the chance to visit many different states and parts of the country that you may have never had the chance to experience before. You may even be able to expand your travels further if you transport items to Mexico and Canada. It is a unique experience to get paid to travel while providing such an important service.
Without truck drivers, all of the materials, equipment and supplies that the public relies on would not make it onto store shelves or front porches. Trucking is an essential service for this country and will likely continue to increase in demand. Truck driver employment is expected to increase 6% by 2030, further increasing the job security of this profession.
Being on the open road each day can feel a lot more liberating than being stuck behind a desk or staring at a computer screen all day. Although you will likely have a strict driving schedule and deadlines, you have the freedom to listen to audiobooks and music as you like when on your route. If you become an owner-operator, you have even more control over your schedule.
As a full-time driver for a trucking company, you typically have access to a greater number of benefits, often including health and life insurance. Some companies offer vision and dental plans and access to flexible spending accounts (FSAs). Retirement benefits such as 401k accounts and profit sharing opportunities may also be available. Some trucking companies may offer a greater number of benefits, especially as the demand continues to increase.
No higher education required
Although drivers who have some higher-level education are becoming more common in the industry, it is not a requirement to have a college degree or classes to become a driver. While having a CDL is a requirement and it never hurts to have prior trucking experience under your belt, even new CDL holders have opportunities to find employment. Drivers who are new to the truck driving career path can get more experience while completing truck driving school and on-the-job training. The trucking industry is open to nearly everyone, as long as they meet the training, licensing and insurance requirements.
If becoming a truck driver is of interest to you, plenty of resources are available to point you in the right direction.
The Commercial Vehicle Training Association (CVTA) offers a list of driver training programs, plus other valuable information for getting started with truck driving training. The National Association of Publicly Funded Truck Driving Schools (NAPFTDS) has further information about driving schools, including entry-level training.
The American Trucking Associations (ATA) provides resources to members — both trucking companies and owner-operators — to help operations run as efficiently as possible. If you are an owner-operator, you may find the business services offered by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) helpful.
The FMCSA provides information for obtaining a commercial driver’s license on its licensing overview page. You could also consult this in-depth guide in preparing for the CDL test and obtaining your license.