If you are interested in starting a trucking career, don’t expect to make big money overnight. In general, it takes about a year to get enough experience to get a well-paying job. Driver turnover is high everywhere. If you start out with a firm in January, by the following January, you could be the longest-lasting person on the staff. If you thrive on uncertainty and if you don’t mind never knowing where you’ll be three days from today, then you may have the ideal mindset for trucking. If you can sleep anywhere, if you prefer to be alone, if you love to travel and see unique sights, and you don’t mind sitting still for 10 hours at a time, then trucking could be the perfect job for you. This guide explains all aspects of the industry, and you are encouraged to read through the material thoroughly.
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In 1966, when signing the legislation that created the U.S. Department of Transportation, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “In large measure, America’s history is a history of her transportation.”
Since the very first explorers and settlers came to America, this country has been a place of movers and the movement of goods has kept the nation thriving. In the Colonial era, supplies and raw materials moved by water and horseback. Later on, the canal system expanded and eventually railroads covered the continent, making it possible to move from coast to coast in a less than two weeks. At the start of the 20th century, railroad transportation dominated freight traffic. When supplies reached the railroad terminal, horses pulled wagons to carry items to their final destination. At this time, most of the roads in America were unpaved paths that turned muddy in the rain and impassable in snow.
Road paving was expensive and the country just didn’t have the funding to invest in a massive road improvement project for the few people who had motorized vehicles. Perspectives started to change when Henry Ford began turning out cars on an assembly line in 1908 and the passenger vehicle became more and more popular. In those early years, government officials didn’t really consider the implications motorized vehicles would have for interstate shipping, because they assumed railroads would remain the preferred way to ship freight. Early trucks didn’t have the power and reliability of freight or even of a team of horses. The top priority at that time was passenger travel.
In the late 1800s, a Scotsman named John MacAdam found a relatively inexpensive way to pave roads. MacAdam’s method made it financially feasible to begin paving many roads in the US. By 1911, pressure began to build for a road system that would make it possible to cross the continent entirely by paved road.
Trucks were still too expensive and clunky to challenge railroads for long-distance hauling, but things changed when a chauffeur named Clessie Cummins figured out how to build a fuel-efficient diesel engine that had as much power and speed as traditional gas engines. It took some time for the design to catch on, but the Great Depression actually helped spur its popularity when drivers realized they could save money on fuel if they switched to diesel engines. At about the same time, the network of paved roads was finally big enough to support interstate truck transportation.
In 1935, the Motor Carrier Act created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which provided set prices for freight hauling. The regulated pricing scheme meant carriers couldn’t compete on cost.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, by the early 1950s, about 17 percent of US freight was moving by truck. At that same time, the interstate highway system was expanding and trucks could get to many places faster and more easily than by railroad. Shipping freight by truck allowed customers to move product from door to door without having to transfer between modes of transportation several times along the way. To simplify the transfer process, shippers began using containers they could move from trailer to railroad and even to ships without having to unload and reload. Moving freight this way is called piggybacking.
Big changes came to the trucking industry in the 1980s, when the federal government began deregulating the trucking industry. Now that carriers weren’t limited by government-determined prices, competition became fierce. Profit margins dropped, firms went out of business, and the industry started to consolidate. Outfits that had long been union shops closed down and reopened as non-union to save money on wages. At the same time, the federal government began to standardize requirements about who could drive a commercial truck.
The next several decades of the trucking industry, up until the present day, have been a story of rising fuel prices and increasing government rules about who can drive, when, and how long. Companies have merged and folded, leading to a group of major national freight carriers. Trucking is inevitably linked to the economy. When times are good, people are buying things, and those things need to be shipped from manufacturer to consumer. When times are bad, people stop buying, and truckers have less work to do.
The future of the trucking industry depends greatly on the economy, gas prices and government regulation. In early 2011, there were still more trucks than freight in the country overall. Some carriers are busier than others. With gas prices high and restrictions on drivers tight (amount of time they are allowed to work and drive, and speed restrictions), the best hope for truckers is that the nation as a whole will pull out its credit card and start buying televisions, sofas and tennis shoes to the point that more goods need to be shipped than there are trucks available to haul. At that point, freight prices will start to go up and truckers will begin to see higher pay rates and better profits.