Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers transport goods from one location to another. Most tractor-trailer drivers are long-haul drivers and operate trucks with a gross vehicle weight (GVW) capacity of more than 26,000 pounds. These drivers deliver goods over intercity routes, sometimes spanning several states.

Duties

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers typically do the following:

  • Drive long distances
  • Report to a dispatcher any incidents encountered on the road
  • Follow all applicable traffic laws
  • Inspect their trailer before and after the trip, and record any defects they find
  • Keep a log of their activities
  • Report serious mechanical problems to the appropriate personnel
  • Keep their truck and associated equipment clean and in good working order

Most heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers plan their own routes. They may use satellite tracking to help them plan.

Before leaving, a driver usually is told a delivery location and time, but it is up to the driver to determine how to get the cargo there.

A driver must know which roads allow trucks and which do not. Drivers also must plan legally required rest periods into their trip. Some drivers have one or two routes that they drive regularly, and others drivers take many different routes throughout the country. Also, some drivers have routes that include Mexico or Canada.

Companies sometimes use two drivers, known as teams, on long runs to minimize downtime. On these team runs, one driver sleeps in a berth behind the cab while the other drives.

Some heavy truck drivers transport hazardous materials, such as chemical waste, and so have to take special precautions when driving. Also, these drivers normally carry specialized safety equipment in case of an accident. Other drivers, such as those carrying liquids, oversized loads, or cars, must follow rules that apply specifically to them.

Some long-haul truck drivers, called owner-operators, buy or lease trucks and go into business for themselves. They then have business tasks, including finding and keeping clients and doing administrative work such as accounting, in addition to their driving tasks.

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Work Environment

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers held about 1.7 million jobs in 2012.

Many heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers are employed in general freight trucking. The industries that employed the most truck drivers in 2012 were as follows:

General freight trucking 34%
Specialized freight trucking 13
Merchant wholesalers, nondurable goods 8

Working as a long-haul truck driver is a major lifestyle choice because these drivers can be away from home for days or weeks at a time. They spend much of this time alone. Truck driving can be a physically demanding job as well. Driving for many hours in a row can be tiring, and some drivers must load and unload cargo.

Injuries and Illnesses

Because of the potential for traffic accidents, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers have one of the highest rates of injury and illnesses of all occupations. 

Work Schedules

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulates the hours that a long-haul truck driver may work. Drivers may not work more than 14 straight hours comprising up to 11 hours spent driving and the remaining time spent doing other work, such as unloading cargo. Between working periods, drivers must have at least 10 hours off duty. Drivers also are limited to driving no more than 60 hours within 7 days or 70 hours within 8 days; then drivers must take 34 hours off before starting another 7- or 8-day run. Drivers must record their hours in a logbook. Truck drivers often work nights, weekends, and holidays.

Education and Training

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers usually have a high school diploma and attend a professional truck driving school. They must have a commercial driver’s license (CDL).

Education

Most companies require their truck drivers to have a high school diploma or equivalent.

Many companies require drivers to attend professional truck-driving schools, where they take training courses to learn how to maneuver large vehicles on highways or through crowded streets. During these classes, drivers also learn the federal laws and regulations governing interstate truck driving. Students attend either a private truck-driving school or a program at a community college that lasts between 3 and 6 months.

Upon finishing these classes, drivers receive a certificate of completion.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is considering requiring all newly hired interstate truck drivers to take a truck-driving course.

The Professional Truck Driver Institute (PTDI) certifies a small percentage of driver-training courses at truck-driver training schools that meet both the industry standards and the U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines for training tractor-trailer drivers.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All long-haul truck drivers must have a commercial driver’s license (CDL). Qualifications for obtaining a CDL vary by state but generally include passing both a knowledge test and a driving test. States have the right to refuse to issue a CDL to anyone who has had a CDL suspended by another state.

Drivers can get endorsements to their CDL that show their ability to drive a specialized type of vehicle. Truck drivers transporting hazardous materials (HAZMAT) must have a hazardous materials endorsement (H). Getting this endorsement requires an additional knowledge test and a background check.

Federal regulations require random testing of on-duty truck drivers for drug or alcohol abuse. In addition, truck drivers can have their CDL suspended if they are convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or are convicted of a felony involving the use of a motor vehicle.

Other actions can result in a suspension after multiple violations. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration website has a list of these violations. Additionally, some companies have stricter standards than what federal regulations require.

Training

After completing truck driving school and being hired by a company, drivers normally receive between 1 and 3 months of on-the-job training. During this time, they drive a truck with a more experienced mentor-driver in the passenger seat. This period of on-the-job training is to learn more about the specific type of truck they will drive and material they will be transporting.

Personality and Interests

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers typically have an interest in the Building and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers should also possess the following specific qualities:

Hand-eye coordination. Drivers of heavy trucks and tractor-trailers must be able to coordinate their legs, hands, and eyes simultaneously so that the driver reacts appropriately to the situation around them and drives the vehicle safely.

Hearing ability. Truck drivers need good hearing. Federal regulations require that a driver be able to hear a forced whisper in one ear at 5 feet (with or without the use of a hearing aid).

Physical health. Federal regulations do not allow people to become truck drivers if they have a medical condition that may interfere with their ability to operate a truck, such as high blood pressure or epilepsy. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration website has a full list of medical conditions that disqualify someone from driving a long-haul truck.

Visual ability. Truck drivers must be able to pass vision tests. Federal regulations require a driver to have at least 20/40 vision with a 70-degree field of vision in each eye and the ability to distinguish the colors on a traffic light.

Pay

The median annual wage for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers was $38,200 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than the amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $25,110, and the top 10 percent earned more than $58,910.  

 In May 2012, the median annual wages for heavy and tractor-trailer drivers in the top three industries in which these drivers worked were as follows:

General freight trucking  $40,360
Specialized freight trucking 37,710
Merchant wholesalers, nondurable goods 39,630

Drivers of heavy trucks and tractor-trailers are usually paid by how many miles they have driven, plus bonuses. The per-mile rate varies from employer to employer and may depend on the type of cargo and the experience of the driver. Some long-distance drivers, especially owner-operators, are paid a share of the revenue from shipping.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulates the hours that a long-haul truck driver may work. Drivers may not work more than 14 straight hours comprising up to 11 hours spent driving and the remaining time spent doing other work, such as unloading cargo. Between working periods, drivers must have at least 10 hours off duty. Drivers also are limited to driving no more than 60 hours within 7 days or 70 hours within 8 days; then drivers must take 34 hours off before starting another 7- or 8-day run. Drivers must record their hours in a logbook. Truck drivers often work nights, weekends, and holidays.

Job Outlook

Employment of heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers is projected to grow 11 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average of all occupations.

As the economy grows, the demand for goods will increase, and more truck drivers will be needed to keep supply chains moving. Trucks transport most of the freight in the United States, so as households and businesses increase their spending, the trucking industry will grow.

As fuel prices rise, some companies may switch their shipping to rail to lower costs. However, rail is unlikely to take much market share away from trucks, because even with high diesel prices for truck fuel, trucks are more efficient for short distances. Additionally, many products need to be delivered within the short time frame that only trucks can operate in.

Demand for truck drivers is expected to increase in oil and gas industries as more drivers become needed to transport materials to and from mining sites.

Job Prospects

Job prospects for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers with the proper training are projected to be favorable. Because of truck drivers’ difficult lifestyle and time spent away from home, many companies have trouble finding and retaining qualified long-haul drivers.

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FAQ

Where does this information come from?

The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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There are many excellent tools available that will allow you to measure your interests, profile your personality, and match these traits with appropriate careers. We recommend the Career Personality Profiler assessment ($29), the Holland Code assessment ($19), or the Photo Career Quiz (free).