(This column was written for Target Publications, October, 2010)

Whether you’re young and mapping-out the future, or your career is at a crossroads, remember: Everyone looks up to a truck driver. How many stuffed-shirt MBA’s can say that—even after seven years of quote-unquote “Higher Education”?

At the same time, it’s clear that the Information Age created an unprecedented market for good-paying jobs without necessitating a traditional four-year degree or, just as importantly, long periods away from home. So where does that leave the trucking industry—particularly in today’s economy?

“Actually,” says Randy Watson, Director of Safety and Compliance at Evergreen Transport, “That trend is already starting to turn back around. I’m seeing demand shifting back to truck drivers. Nowadays, new drivers who are willing to work can make as much as $40,000 a year. And remember, that’s without having to spend an extra two to four years in school.”

Of course, the number one requirement to maximizing earnings is a willingness to travel. Watson continues, “The reality of the trucking industry is, if you want a better paycheck, you have to get out of the house.”

It’s a reality which is clearly less popular than it used to be. Rance Clemons, Trucking Department Head at Bevill State Community College, has been in the business—both as a driver and an instructor—since 1978. “The biggest difference I see between students today and the ones I came in with is, nearly everyone these days wants a local job. Thirty years ago, we all wanted to hit the road, go to California, tour the country.

“I let our students know pretty quickly, there’s a lot more demand, and money, for OTR drivers.”

So let’s say you’re willing to do what it takes to maximize your income as a trucker. What can you expect from your early years in the field? First, you can expect a lot of personal freedom to be yourself. Truckers come in all shapes and styles—from tattooed and shaggy to military sharp.

That said, you won’t go far without having the basic social skills needed to deal professionally, and courteously, with customers and loading dock workers. But then, if you have a hard time treating people the way you want to be treated, you’d be much better off pursuing a career in Tech Support. If there is one thing this writer has learned from years of personal experience, it’s this: Few, if any, industries employ more consistently friendly people than trucking.

Your first step in becoming a professional trucker is likely to be the most tedious: School. Where, in addition to learning how to handle a huge rig, you’ll have to study the rules of the road—and there are plenty of regulations you’ll need to know. But again, Truck Driving School typically takes six to eight weeks—not two to four years.

Once you’ve graduated and landed your first job, you’ll likely start your career with a trainer—an experienced driver who’ll teach you all the practical lessons you might never learn in a classroom. Lessons like how to plan the best route into each destination. (After all, big semis aren’t made for every road on the map—particularly narrow streets with tight turns.)

For most young truckers, this training period is as enjoyable as it is invaluable—since trucking companies usually choose trainers not just for their accident-free records, but also for their patience and ability to get along well with others.

A big part of getting along well with others, by the way, is being in the right place at the right time. One good way to do that is to plan your schedule around rush hours—particularly in densely-populated areas.

Then there are the practical lessons. Like minimizing your living expenses on the road. Some better-paid truckers don’t mind spending their money on restaurants and motels. But a lot of veterans equip their trucks with all the comforts of home—including refrigerators, microwaves, wireless laptops and satellite TV’s—and in the process of saving their money, actually grow to prefer their own home away from home.

Speaking of money, drivers are usually paid weekly through direct deposit—giving you instant access to your pay with a debit card. More often, companies issue drivers “Comdata” cards. Comdata covers everything from driver pay and fuel to overweight fines. And with Comdata, you can always check your balance online. You can also send a designated portion of your pay to a spouse, or you can manually transfer funds to and from separate accounts online.

Of course, money isn’t everything. The good news is, truck driving is one of the very few jobs where most employers are genuinely willing to work with you, when you’re having problems with your assignments. Good drivers are tough to replace, and trucking companies like to keep the drivers they know.

Which means, of course, that trucking can be the kind of career where people look up to you even when you aren’t behind the wheel. And that’s worth a lot.

If you have topic suggestions for future trucking-industry columns—or would like to be added to my list of sources—please let me know.

—Francis Hare
francis@harebrains.com |  205-939-4001