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Want a Life on the Open Road? Here’s What It’s Like to Be a Truck Driver
Cindy George never planned to be a truck driver.
She was finishing up her bachelor’s degree in computer science technology when she met Danny, who’d recently begun a job as a long-haul trucker.
Cindy had driven trucks on her family farm since she was 16, but it wasn’t until she started splitting her time between studying in the computer lab and riding along with Danny that she had a revelation.
“About the time I graduated, I got the idea in my head that if I became a computer programmer, I would be stuck down in a basement somewhere while life was going on around outside,” Cindy says. “And the opposite of that is the truck, where the world goes past your windshield. You have a different view every day.”
That was 29 years ago. Danny, 53, and Cindy, 51, have now been married 25 years, and last year they earned $175,000 as a truck-driving team.
The Georges are the kind of success story the trucking industry might want to add to its recruiting arsenal — there’s an estimated shortage of more than 50,000 drivers, according to the American Trucking Association. With an aging workforce, the industry is losing drivers to retirement and has struggled to replace them with a new generation of truckers.
If you’ve dreamed about ditching the office — and that micromanager of a boss — for the open road, there are a few things you need to know before making trucking your career track.
Truck Driver Shortage, Reason #1: Pay
Although there’s a shortage of truck drivers, the pay rate has not reflected the increased demand.
On average, local drivers make $21.69 per hour while long-distance truckers make $22.22 per hour, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But if you adjust for inflation, the pay rates haven't changed much in the last decade.
The George’s, who’ve reached the top of their pay scale, estimate that 17% of their income last year came from bonuses for meeting monthly mileage goals, earning additional certifications and serving as mentors to younger drivers.
Shyanta Mathis, who drove a truck for seven years and is now a recruiter for ProDrivers in South Carolina, says one of the reasons she left the driver’s seat wasn’t the need for a bigger paycheck but for steadier income.
Finding that can be difficult when you’re at the mercy of the weather, a truck’s mechanical issues and customers’ schedules.
“The check would be $900 and then the next week your check would be $600,” Mathis says. “Even though I may make a little less now… at least I don't have to guess what my paycheck is going to be.”
Truck Driver Shortage, Reason #2: Lifestyle
Although driving a big rig on the open road may sound romantic, the reality is that long stretches away from loved ones, difficult weather conditions and demanding schedules mean the trucking life can be stressful and a lot of hard work.
Mathis describes the demands of driving in the mountains during harsh winter conditions and having to pull over at each incline to attach chains to the tires. The need to find safe areas to park at night when she drove alone intensified her anxiety.
Although short-haul drivers may not have to be away from home for long periods, they deal with lower pay and the monotony of driving the same routes every day.
Tony Hobart, 46, of Ocala, Florida, has been a short-distance driver for three years. He started working for a company six months ago, making $13 per hour. He now makes $15 per hour, plus time-and-a-half because he drives 60 hours per week.
“It’s less stress,” Hobart says. “For short haulers, it’s a solid job, but it’s very boring.”
Few people consider trucking to be glamorous, so it ends up being a job of last resort, according to Justin Harness, senior vice president of dedicated operations for US XPress.
“It’s not a job that people want to do, necessarily,” Harness says. “It’s either a stopgap… or people try it when they’re of legal driving age and they realize it’s not a lifestyle they want to subscribe to long term.
“It is not an easy job.”
Benefits of Being a Truck Driver
So what is it that gets people behind the wheel?
Mathis says that truck driving may not be easy, but it’s important, which gives drivers a purpose beyond the paycheck.
“A lot of drivers feel good just knowing that they are contributing to bringing consumer goods to people’s homes,” Mathis says.
Harness agrees that his drivers feel a sense of accomplishment by building relationships with their customers.
“They enjoy the freedom of being out on the road… and they have a lot of freedom in whether they are able to do a good job or not,” Harness says. “The ones that are very successful take a lot of pride in that.”
And even though the trucking industry may not pay as much as some people think it should, the salary and bonuses can really add up to a decent income for someone just entering the workforce.
“There are some great opportunities to make some really good money for 21-, 22-, 23-, 24-, 25-year-olds coming into this industry with no experience,” Harness says.
Mathis prefers her new job as a recruiter but admits there are aspects of truck driving she misses.
“Before I got in the truck, I had never seen anything past North Carolina and South Carolina,” she says. “Now I’ve been to Oregon, Idaho — all these beautiful places.”
The Georges say that mandatory rest periods for long-haul truckers help them plan stops along their routes for running, hiking and cycling.
“If you’re opportunistic and know where you can stop, you might find a nice bike trail next to a rest stop,” says Danny, a third-generation truck driver.
Plus, that idealistic notion of the seeing the world still rings true for the couple.
“We got into the profession because we wanted an adventure,” Danny says. “It’s 29 years later, and I still can’t believe we get paid to do this — it is an absolute blast.”
How to Become a Truck Driver
Before you buy a trucker’s hat and a pair of fuzzy dice, you’ll need a few things, including your Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulates licensing for safety and training, but you’ll need to obtain the license through your state Department of Motor Vehicles.
And you can’t simply walk into the DMV and sign up for an exam. You’ll need to attend a truck driving school to prepare for passing the skills and knowledge tests.
Specialized schools and local colleges offer courses that can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the type of certifications you want to get.
Also be prepared to take the Department of Transportation physical, which you must pass to receive a two-year license.
Oh, and if you’re planning to hit the road with your significant other, the Georges recommend you learn how to get along in a space the size of a walk-in closet.
“Read a couple books about relationships,” Danny suggests. Cindy adds with a laugh, “I have my own personal comedian in the truck with me… humor helps a lot.”
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Data journalist Alex Mahadevan contributed to this article.
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