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What To Expect Your First Year Of Trucking

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So, you’ve just finished trucking school. It’s time to celebrate! Getting your Class A CDL is exciting, and a great accomplishment. You have learned a lot about the world of trucking—and trucks—and how to operate and maneuver these huge vehicles.

Your trucking career awaits. Now, all you have to do is put your foot on the gas—literally and figuratively.

But, what you might not quite realize is that you are not just beginning your career. You are entering a second kind of trucking school. It’s called “the first year in trucking,” and it’s just as demanding as that CDL curriculum.

Getting Into Gear Your First Year

Experienced truckers describe this first year as everything from “a big challenge,” to “definitely tough.” Says one trucker, “Your first year as a truck driver is going to be the hardest one.” Or, as another veteran puts it, “Your first year in trucking will make or break you.”

But this is no time to panic. Nor is anyone, least of all veteran truckers out there, trying to discourage you. It’s just that the more you know what to expect your first year in trucking, the better you will get through that year.

Luckily, experienced truckers have plenty of advice to share about the first year.

A Great First Year Equals A Great Career: 10 Tips

1. Get as much driving experience as you can, as soon as you can. You may be driving difficult routes made even more difficult because you’re a rookie. But keep driving, driving, driving. Truckers will tell you that the more experience you have, the more work you’ll get, the more money you’ll make—and the more relaxed you will become.

2. Expect to be assigned to a driver trainer. This is true for many first-year truckers, so you need to be prepared for it, and you need to make it work. Sharing a rig with another person is hard, not to mention awkward (especially if the trucker and driver trainer are male and female) Just remind yourself this will not last forever. Make the best of it—and learn from that trainer’s experience.

3. Learn to live cheap—for now. Your wages will be low for your first gigs, and living on the road can get pretty pricey if you don’t watch it. So, get a cooler, bring your own food, avoid eating at truck stops. It adds up faster than you can imagine.

4. Do not. Do not. Get into an accident. It’s a fact of first-year trucking that accidents are common. “That’s really just inexperience,” says James Fairbank, a veteran truck driver and now Director of Education at the National Tractor Trailer School in Liverpool, N.Y. He adds that new truckers “are really pressured out there just to get things done, not take up time, they’re worried about being in people’s way, where to park, and it can be overwhelming. Learn to slow down, take a deep breath and relax.”

Still, accidents are expensive, they stain your driving record, and shake your self-confidence. So, surviving this first-year accident-free will pay huge dividends. Also, many accidents and mishaps are preventable.

One trucker offers his “G.O.A.L.” advice when it comes to avoiding accidents. Most often, these occur when you’re backing up into a new customer location or other unfamiliar tight spots: “Get Out And Look.”

Look at all angles, and don’t rely on a spotter, who may not understand the intricacies of backing up a huge, uber-long vehicle. Learn to avoid these and other kinds of rookie mistakes and make it to that first-year finish line free of accidents.

5. Take care of yourself. Trucking is physically and mentally challenging. You’ll see a lot of articles and YouTube videos reminding you to get out of that truck as often as possible and get some physical exercise; to listen to iPods, books on tape, or radio programs. Depression is not uncommon among truckers; this is one way to help deflect it.

6. Do what it takes to stay in touch with family and friends. As Fairbank noted, adjusting to this new lifestyle “is the biggest learning curve.” Regular contact with family and friends is the best goal, and it’s easy to do.

You have Bluetooth technology that allows hands-free telephone calls. You have the internet at truck stops—and some, though not all, rest stops—to use for social media or video messaging. A conversation face-to-face, even via computer or cell phone screen, can refresh you more than you can imagine.

A related hint regarding family life, one trucker recommends: When you get home, you may just want to sleep a lot. Sure, you need catch-up sleep, but avoid the temptation to just slug it until you leave again. Get back into your family life as much as possible. Making your short time home larger than life goes a long way to extending your presence after you leave for your next haul.

7. Don’t “job hop.” It’s natural for younger folks to look for the greener grass during that first year. Avoid that temptation. It looks bad on your record: Who wants to hire someone who may jump ship right after you spend time and money training them, right? You need to establish a credible time of service record. The greener pastures will come soon enough.

Fairbank also advises new truckers to find out what companies offer support, and which ones just throw you the keys and send you on your way. The former is preferable, obviously.

8. Find an employer close to home. If you’re an OTR trucker, one veteran driver advises you to find a trucking company that has a terminal located as close to your home as possible. That will allow you to get home between loads more often. If you do find such a terminal, this trucker also advises keeping a car parked there, so you can dash off home right away and use that down time for family time.

9. Consider finding mentors. As one trucker has noted, “Experienced drivers can be a wealth of knowledge. By finding a few that you can trust to tell it to you straight, you stand to gain a lot. As you earn experience you can bounce ‘what ifs’ off of them, to see how they would handle different situations.” But, he cautions, remember that “not every experienced driver can be a mentor. ... Be selective of whom you take advice from.”

10. When all else fails, just let it go. This is advice anyone can use, especially truckers. Just as you’ve likely been told not to let those crazy drivers on the road get to you, since they never will change, there are other things you’ll need to learn to take in stride.

As one trucker shares: “You can’t let things get to you. Just take things as they come. … Somebody cuts me off? Whatever. Customer makes me wait 13 hours to get loaded? Great, I’ll get some sleep and write a blog! Truck breaks down? Excellent, I’ll order myself a pizza at the hotel room my company is paying for! ... There are two kinds of truck drivers out here ..., the kind that say, ‘That isn’t fair’ over and over. ... And the kind that make the best of situations and let things go.”

Remember: You’re A Rookie

One final, practical bit of advice:

Don’t expect too much. During that first year as a trucker, don’t expect high pay, easy loads, easy driving, or much family time. The first three of these change after that first year. The latter, limited family time, doesn’t change unless you switch to regional or shorter dedicated routes, among other options.

No, this first year is all about adjusting to what truckers know. It is more than a new job—it’s a new lifestyle. Trucking, primarily OTR trucking, has been compared by some to life in the military, or working on oil rigs.

It makes sense, when you think about it. Trucking companies aren’t going to automatically give you higher wages until they see what you can do. The same applies to dispatchers. If they don’t know you, or what you can do, they’ll assign you the less attractive loads—or, as one trucker says, the “sh—y” loads.

“You’re the new guy, a green horn, wet-behind-the-ears,” he says. “You’re going to be given loads that you’re not going to be happy with. Your mileage will not be up to par ... They’re still seeing how well you do.”

Fairbank, who also was a dispatcher for a major company, says it’s not always a case of seniority with load-allocation.

When assigning loads for a major trucking company, “we had over 100 variables to consider. For new drivers who are unaware of this, it can seem random and arbitrary. They think, ‘My dispatcher is trying to mess me over,’ but often, that is not the case.”

Fairbank recommends communicating more with dispatchers. For instance, let them know not just the day you need to be back home, but the time of day as well. In addition, he says, “be cooperative with your dispatcher. If there’s an issue, you need to address it.”

So, learn as you go, and don’t panic. Right after finishing his first year, one trucker advised, “be patient, work hard, don’t give up ... and everything will work out.”

As proof of that, he shared that he had been able to pay off his trucking school debt because he had “learned how to make money, learned what to look for in a company ... learned about the trucking business and how everything works.

“It’s just about applying yourself.”

It’s A Wonderful Life

Again, the above list is not meant to discourage you from the trucking career. The same truckers who contribute this advice also describe why they love the job:

  • A good living. If you play your cards right and follow the rules, you can make good pay—with benefits—as a rookie. In 2019, the average annual truck driver earned $46,850, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov). Additionally, the top 10% had an average pay of $66,840! Many make much more than that. That’s a nice lifestyle, and a nice way to provide for your family.
  • The independence. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of freedom when you’re out on the road on your own, with no boss or irritating co-workers offering their two cents worth on whatever comes up.
  • As TruckerMike describes it: “Getting to see it all.” After traveling to every state in the lower 48 other than North Dakota, he has this to share: “One of the main reasons I got into truck driving was to see as much of this country as possible…. I’ve seen a lot. From the most congested areas in New York, to the most remote areas of Montana. From the Pacific to the Atlantic (and the Gulf of Mexico, too!) From seal level to over 11,000 feet above sea level. From desert sand to several feet of snow. From slums to the Vegas strip. ... In just one year, I’ve seen more of this country than most people see in their entire lifetime. ... Very few careers give people the opportunity to see so much.”

Well, we can’t improve on that. Have a great first year, truckers, and a great career!

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