I decided to enter trucking after years stuck in the California community college system, trying to get the classes I would need to transfer to the University of California Riverside, to obtain an appropriate degree for pre-medical training. Anyone who has attended any of the state's community college knows that, to get a seat in the class you need, it's difficult at best. The final straw for me was when I was trying to get into a microbiology class. I was unable to register for any of the available times the class was being held through the online system, because others were able to register for them before me. The previous two semesters, I was only able to register for Electives classes, and could not get into any of the general education or other classes related to my declared major. I tried to petition to get into the microbiology class, but the professor said it was unlikely I could get the class at all. Turned out those for whom English was their second language would get priority through the college's EOPS program. I was told most would likely drop the class, but that they would only do it after the deadline to add classes, with the last day to drop a class weeks later. What a waste!
So, I checked out my financial situation, my diet of peanut butter sandwiches and Top Ramen, and how much I owed on student loans, and decided I had to make a change, and fast. I had a lot of skills, especially in computers and health care, but without a piece of paper that said I knew what I was doing, there wasn't a chance of getting jobs with those skills. Then a neighbor who drove for Wal Mart suggested I give trucking a look. I did, and I liked what I saw. The next week, I talked to United Truck Driving School in Etiwanda, and decided this was the fastest way for me to get back to work, and get out from under my student loans. I dropped all my classes, told the student advisor what I thought of their priority registration system that made it impossible to get a two year degree in under 5 years, and started truck driving school.
The first week at United Truck Driving School was spent studying for the written DMV tests to obtain a learner's permit. My instructor for this portion had 20 years experience, and definitely knew about trucking and safety. California isn't exactly the easiest state to obtain a CDL, by any stretch, especially if you want the HazMat endorsement that many carriers require. This being before September 11, 2001, there was no national background check that was done separately, but passing California's HazMat test is not easy. After the first week, the entire class drove to the Norco, CA DMV, to take our written tests. All of us passed, and obtained all endorsements, except for motor cycle and passenger.
The next 3 weeks would actually be harder for me than the other students, because of the difficulties with shifting I experienced. I had developed a lot of habits for shifting in cars, which is very different from shifting in big rigs. But, the driving instructor had the patience of a saint, and worked out how to teach me. I was the first one to learn how to "float" the gears, a method of shifting without using the clutch, while the vehicle is in motion. He also added another little trick I remember to this day, a song. If one hums the old theme song for the TV show "The Addams Famly," the timing of the finger snaps is actually the timing for shifting in most rigs. I mastered "floating the gears" almost immediately, and would later just add the clutch to the process.
During the driving portion of the program, we would alternate between driving and yard skills. The driving part included surface streets, docking, and mountain driving. THe yard skills portion we did at the DMV testing site in San Bernardino, which gave us an advantage on test day, because we were familiar with the yard and what exactly was required. At the end of the last week, however, we had to go with a flatbed trailer, thanks to the Santa Ana winds that were common for that time of the year. An empty flatbed is a different experience from a van trailer, because you can see almost everything around you. You would think this would make things easier, but it doesn't. My experience since told me why, the easier the backing appears, the harder it may actually be, at least with lining things up. So, on the cold Santa Ana nights, we had to practice a lot with backing, until each of us was able to deal with the flatbed trailer we would be sing at the end of the week for the actual DMV test.
The DMV test was, well, a different experience from when I obtained my first Class C license. The first step was the vehicle inspection itself. I had to spend a lot of time studying this one (every night for weeks), and had developed my own little script that I rehersed, to make sure I didn't miss anything. Trust me when I say this, make sure you study every single detail about vehicle inspections in the DMV manual, because the testing officer will mark every single thing you missed, and it is easy to fail this part of the DMV testing. Fortunately, my script idea worked (I use it to this day for my twice daily inspections), and I passed 100%.
The next part was the road test, or driving examination. We had rehersed the route for this test many times, including a particularly tricky freeway exercise on I-215. Unfortunately for me, I had developed a habit the DMV doesn't like, talking about what I need to do while driving, and insisting upon being notified of the next turn immediately, so I can prepare as early as possible. This cost me points, because one of the rules I didn't know about is talking, even to yourself, is not allowed. I lost 5 points for talking, but otherwise scored 100% on everything else. Of course, my classmates did better than I did on the driving portion, after I warned them about the talking issue.
The yard skills test was easier than I had expected, because we were able to take the test in the same part of the yard we had practiced in the previous 3 weeks. We had an advantage over the others testing in the yard, because we had the flatbed trailer, everyone else had can type trailers. Our class passed the yard skills test with 100% scores, and then we had to hang out for a while and wait for our temporary licenses to be processed. I got a bit arrogant about how well we did, and started bagging on those who didn't do as well, and how those schools had POS equipment to work with. The instructor, and my classmates, called me out on this attitude. I was reminded I knew only just enough to be dangerous, and that I had better be prepared to help those with less skill or experience than I, rather just sitting there making fun of them. After all, I'm going to be facing the same problem when I start working with professionals with decades more experience than I had. My attitude towards others was corrected, and the lesson has stuck with me ever since.
During CDL school, various recruiters would come in to talk to us about their companies. When you are knew, you don't have a whole lot of options for that first job, and you have to be very careful in selecting a motor carrier to work for. I had narrowed my choices down to CR England, JB Hunt, and Schneider National, three carriers I knew had decent training programs (at that time). When I saw JB Hunt's equipment, however, they were dropped from my final list quickly. One of their drivers had stopped by to try and recruit us, to get the bonuses he would obtain if he were successful. He drove a cabover International with a van trailer, both of which couldn't pass a CVSA inspection if the inspecting officer was blind.
When I applied to Schneider, I wanted tankers, which a friend of mine who worked with the California Highway Patrol and drove rigs part time told me was the toughest, and best paying, job in trucking. But, Schneider was reluctant to hire me, and had issues with things that had absolutely nothing to do with trucking in any way. While what they were doing was blatant discrimination, I'm not the lawsuit type, so I blew it off, and wrote them off completely. CR England, however, impressed me. The equipment was very nice, compared to others, and I was assured I would have a female trainer with lots of experience in the industry as a trucker. So, I applied, and was accepted into their training program.
There might be someone on this site looking into trucking, so this part is for them...
I was lucky in my choice of truck driving schools. Most are just CDL mills, teaching you just barely enough to pass the DMV written, yard skills, vehicle inspection, and road test. You need a school that also teaches you the realities of the industry, and how it all works. Sometimes it helps to ask companies that train new drivers which school in your area they recommend. Avoid attending a driving school that is "sponsored," or actually operated by the company. They tend to require you sign a contract to work for that company for at least 12 months, and with many companies today, that simply is not a goodd idea.
When choosing a company to actually work for, I suggest checking them out thoroughly. You can tell a lot about a company from their SMS BASIC scores, available on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's web site, or search it through Google. Also, a web site called The Truckers Report is an invaluable tool for those thinking of getting into trucking. I also recommend checking out RipoffReport.com, a consumer reporting site that some truckers will file complaints about motor carriers on. Whatever you do, don't get talked into "lease operator" programs. 85% plus of those programs are better known as "Fleece to Owe," because they are scams from the start, designed to drain you of every penny they can until you quit.
Learn everything you can, both in the CDL school, and from the trainer for the company you decide to start with. Plan on staying with that first carrier for 12 months, if you can handle it that long, to allow them to make back the money it cost them to hire and train you. If you just know you can't last that long, try to hang in there for a minimum of six months after completing their training program, and make sure to give them two weeks notice after you cleaned out the truck during your last home time. Very few companies will hire a driver with less than six months of experience, especially if they quit the carrier that trained them after less than six months.
And, above all, do not assume you know more than your trainer, even if that trainer seems like a total idiot. I had to put a trainee off the truck because she thought she knew more than I did, because she had 49 years experience driving a car, with no tickets or accidents. She used this reasoning as an excuse to berate me, while driving 25 mph on an interstate where the speed limit was 70 mph, at 2:30 am. I made her pull over, and refused to allow her to drive after that. A second trainer went through the same experience with her, and she was fired as untrainable.
Because of the shear volume of sexual harassment charges against trainers, there are few trainers in the industry, male or female, willing to train women. It can end the career in trucking for a trainer, so many are skittish about having female trainees today. Nearly all such claims are bogus, which makes it difficult for a female trainee who actually is dealiing with sexual harassment to be taken seriously. But, it does happen, and I know of many legitimate cases that have occurred. Something to keep in mind at all times is that you are in a work environment, even during off duty hours. Your trainer, and you, should never discuss anything personal between each other, especially of a sexual nature. It's okay to ask a trainer how they would deal with certain personal issues that come up in trucking, such as family emergencies, problems with a spouse or partner who is adjusting to your new career, and how to keep yourself safe in various situations.
Beyond that, the trainer is your boss, and you are his or her subordinate, and as such, there should never EVER be any discussions of a sexual nature. Even off duty, you are still at work until you go on home time. Along with this, there should be no inappropriate touching, or any touching beyond a simple hand shake. I know there are many women lke myself who live for hugs, but such contact in the workplace is inappropriate, and can easily be misinterpreted as a sexual advance. You coul lose your job over it, or you could find yourself dealing with someone who doesn't take "no" for an answer. Either scenario could result in long term consequences for you, so just don't do it.
Another thing I want to touch on is your trainer's personal spaces. I had a trainee who thought it was perfectly okay to snoop around in my personal belongings, who later claimed she was just exploring the rig to get an idea of how hers might be set up. I was later accused of sexually harassing her, because of things she found that, while ordinary items, she interpreted them as of a sexual nature (she subsequently filed a sexual harassment complaint against me over what she found). There is never a legitimate reason for a trainee to be "exploring" personal storage areas in the rig, especially without the trainer's permission. There is already near zero privacy when two people are in a rig together, so what little privacy there is is valuable to the trainer. Invading the personal spaces of the trainer is a serious issue for trainers, and you can be put off the rig at the next safe place to do so, and possibly fired for it.
Every trainer will have rules for the rig that you MUST obey. One rule that applies, whether or not the trainer has stated it, is you are never allowed to use your cell phone, not even in hands free mode, while you are in the driver seat or doing your vehicle inspection. To put it bluntly, you can't afford the fines, which can exceed the monthly income of an experienced driver. The other rules your trainer sets are to keep the rig clean, and for your safety. Some may also be company policy. These rules are never open to negotiation, they were set by your boss, or the trainer's boss, or the company. In trucking, no one is special or exempt from the rules.
I'll get into the rest of what you might expect as a trainee when I get into my next blog post, which will be interesting, about my first job in the industry. Trust me, CR England and Sons (their name when I worked for them) has a nasty reputation, but my experiences with them weren't what you may find in the trucker forums. These experiences, however, were from 1995-1997, so things may have improved or degraded since I left them, I don't know.
Until the next post... You all be safe out among 'em, 10-4?