How to Get a Job as a Truck Driver

Long range semi tractor with sleeper cabin and overhead air dam on the highway
••• Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that truck driving is one of the fastest growing occupations, with a large number of job openings each year. Nearly 70% of inland freight is transported by truck, according to the American Trucking Association (ATA).

Truck driver jobs vary greatly in terms of earnings, weekly work hours, the number of nights spent on the road, and the quality of equipment operated, so spend some time researching options before you decide this is the career for you.

Truck Driver Employment Opportunities

There is currently a shortage of qualified truck drivers, and companies are actively recruiting new drivers. The driver shortage currently tops 48,000, and reports indicate that the shortage may worsen to more than 170,000 vacancies by 2025.

That driver shortage has, however, increased the earning potential for drivers. For example, CRST Expedited increased pay 15% for new drivers who receive Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) training through the company’s sponsored training program.

Most truck drivers find employment in large metropolitan areas along major interstate roadways where major trucking, retail, and wholesale companies have distribution outlets. Some drivers work in rural areas, providing specialized services such as delivering newspapers to customers or coal to a railroad.

Truck Driver Job Qualifications

All drivers must comply with federal regulations and any state regulations (which are often stricter than federal requirements).

Truck drivers must have a driver's license issued by the state in which they live, and most employers require a clean driving record.

Drivers of trucks designed to carry at least 26,000 pounds (including most tractor-trailers, as well as bigger straight trucks) must obtain a commercial driver's license (CDL) from the state in which they live.

All truck drivers who operate trucks transporting hazardous materials must obtain a CDL, regardless of truck size. In many states, a regular driver's license is sufficient for driving light trucks and vans.

Getting a Commercial Driver's License (CDL)

To qualify for a Commercial Driver's License, applicants must pass a written test on rules and regulations, and then demonstrate that they can operate a commercial truck safely. A national databank permanently records all driving violations incurred by persons who hold commercial licenses. A state will check these records and deny a Commercial Driver's License to a driver who already has had a license suspended or revoked in another state. Information on how to apply for a CDL may be obtained from state motor vehicle administrations.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations require drivers to be at least 21 years old and to pass a physical examination once every two years.

Physical Requirements for Truck Drivers

The main physical requirements include good hearing, at least 20/40 vision with glasses or corrective lenses, and a 70-degree field of vision in each eye. Drivers cannot be colorblind. Truck drivers must have a strong sense of spatial relations to park their vehicles and negotiate tight spaces.

Other Requirements

Also, a driver must not have been convicted of a felony involving the use of a motor vehicle, a crime using drugs, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or hit-and-run driving that resulted in injury or death.

All drivers must be able to read and speak English well enough to read road signs, prepare reports, and communicate with law enforcement officers and the public. Also, drivers must take a written examination on the Motor Carrier Safety Regulations of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Company Regulations

Many trucking operations have higher standards than those described. Several firms require that drivers be at least 22 years old, can lift heavy objects, and have driven trucks for 3 to 5 years. Others prefer to hire high school graduates and require annual physical examinations.

Companies have an economic incentive to hire less-risky drivers because good drivers can increase fuel economy with their driving skills and decrease liability costs for the company.

Truck Driver Training Programs

Taking driver training courses is an excellent method of preparing for truck driving jobs and for obtaining a commercial driver's license (CDL). High school courses in driver training and automotive mechanics also may be helpful.

Many private and public vocational-technical schools offer tractor-trailer driver training programs. Students learn to maneuver large vehicles on crowded streets and in highway traffic.

They also learn to inspect trucks and freight for compliance with federal, state, and local regulations. Persons interested in attending a driving school should check with local trucking companies to make sure the school's training is acceptable.

Some states require prospective drivers to complete a training course in basic truck driving before being issued their CDL.

Employer Training

Training given to inexperienced drivers by some employers is usually informal and may consist of only a few hours of instruction from an experienced driver, sometimes on the new employee's own time. New drivers may also ride with and observe experienced drivers before assignment of their runs.

Other companies have formal training programs that provide classroom training, on-the-road training, and CDL test preparation.

Some companies also provide classroom instruction covering driving regulations, general duties, the operation and loading of a truck, company policies, and the preparation of delivery forms, logbooks, and company records. Driver/sales workers also receive training on the various types of products they carry, so that they will be effective salespeople.

Very few people enter truck driving professions directly out of school; most truck drivers have previously held jobs in other occupations.

When You Have Prior Experience

Driving experience in the Armed Forces can be an asset. In some cases, a person may also start as a truck driver's helper, driving part of the day and helping to load and unload freight. Senior helpers receive a promotion when driving vacancies occur.

Although most new truck drivers are assigned immediately to regular driving jobs, some start as extra drivers, substituting for regular drivers who are ill or on vacation. They receive a regular assignment when an opening occurs.

New drivers sometimes start on panel trucks or other small straight trucks. As they gain experience and show competent driving skills, they may advance to larger and heavier trucks, and finally to tractor-trailers.

Some long-distance truck drivers purchase a truck and go into business for themselves. Although many of these owner-operators are successful, some fail to cover expenses and eventually go out of business. Owner-operators should have a good business sense as well as truck driving experience. Courses in accounting, business, and business mathematics are helpful, and knowledge of truck mechanics can enable owner-operators to perform their routine maintenance and minor repairs.

How to Find a CDL Testing Center

Driving a commercial vehicle - a bus, a truck, a tractor-trailer - is an excellent job option for a lot of people, but to drive those types of vehicles, you’ll need a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License). The basic requirements for holding a CDL, and the definitions of each of the three classes of CDL, are set at the federal level, but the application process varies from state to state. In general, you’ll have to apply first for a commercial learner’s permit, then take a test to demonstrate your knowledge of your vehicle and your skill as a driver.

For certain endorsements, you’ll need to take additional tests.

You can get your CDL by enrolling in a training school or through an employer that has an apprenticeship program. As mentioned above, many trucking companies provide training for new drivers. You can also get your CDL on your own through your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (or your state’s equivalent agency).

A simple internet search will take you to your DMV’s website, where you can find the details of the application and testing process and find your nearest testing location. There are also third-party testing centers available in many states. At these centers, examiners who have certified in CDL skills testing procedures conduct the test. An example of a third-party tester would be a trucking company that provides their testing for a fee. Information on these testing centers is also available on many state DMV websites.

Top Skills Employers Seek

When employers are hiring for truck driving jobs, applicants are typically required to have a combination of skills. Some of the requirements, like a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) or the ability to pass health screenings and driving tests, are mandatory. Others, like endorsements for hazardous materials or for driving double or triple trailers, depends on the job you're applying for.

There are also skills that preferred candidates will have, even though they are not a requirement for being hired. When you are applying for trucking jobs, match your qualifications to the job requirements, and be sure to include all your most relevant skills and qualifications on the job applications you complete. The applicants that are the closest match to what the employer is seeking are the ones that will be selected for an interview and hired.

Here's a list of skills employers seek in the candidates they hire for truck driving jobs. Also, review information on what employers look for when they are hiring a truck driver.

Truck Driver Skills List

A - E

  • Adhering to a Schedule
  • Adjusting to Unforeseen Circumstances
  • Alertness
  • Attention to Detail
  • Avoiding Preventable Accidents
  • Basic Mathematics
  • Clean Driving Record
  • Commercial Driver’s License (CDL)
  • Communicating Customer Concerns with Products or Deliveries to Management
  • Communicating Regularly with Dispatch
  • Complying with State, Federal and Company Safety Regulations
  • Computer
  • Conducting Basic Vehicle Maintenance
  • Customer Service
  • Deliveries
  • Diagnosing Mechanical Problems
  • Double / Triple Endorsements
  • Excellent Close and Distance Vision
  • Exercising Sound Judgment Regarding Driving Conditions

F - N

  • Flexibility
  • Following Delivery Instructions Carefully
  • Friendly Demeanor
  • Hazardous Material Endorsement (Hazmat)
  • Hazardous Tanker
  • Inspecting Cargo at Destination
  • Inspecting Vehicle Prior to Departure
  • Keeping Time and Material Records
  • Knowing When to Rest
  • Learning Safety Regulations
  • Lifting
  • Limiting Moving Violations
  • Listening to Customer Concerns
  • Loading and Unloading Freight
  • Logistics
  • Long Haul Trucking
  • Maintaining Logs and Records
  • Making Sure Products Are Placed in Store Locations
  • Managing Controllable Costs
  • Maneuvering Vehicles in Tight Spaces
  • Map Reading
  • Meeting Employer Age Requirements
  • Navigation

O - R

  • Operating Dispensing Equipment
  • Operating Forklift
  • Organizational
  • Over the Road (OTR) Experience
  • Parking
  • Pass DOT Physical
  • Pass DOT Drug Test
  • Passing Drug and Alcohol Screenings
  • Pass Road Tests
  • Patience
  • Perform Vehicle Inspections
  • Planning Trips
  • Prioritizing Deliveries
  • Promoting Additional Products
  • Proven Safety Record
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Reliability 
  • Route Deliveries

S - Z

  • Safe Driving Record and History
  • Securing Cargo to Avoid Damage in Transit
  • Sense of Direction
  • Setting up Product Displays 
  • Shelving Products in Retail Stores
  • Strength to Lift Cargo
  • Tank Vehicle Endorsement
  • Technical
  • Time Management
  • Twin Trailer Endorsements
  • Unloading Cargo
  • Utilizing Onboard Computer Systems
  • Verbal Communication
  • Well-developed Sense of Spatial Relations
  • Working Independently
  • Writing Reports Legibly