If you’ve thought about a career in trucking, you’ve undoubtedly encountered advertisements offering free training to drivers who sign on with the company. For those without experience driving, or limited or out-of-date experience, the prospect of earning a CDL license without spending a dime — and a guaranteed job — sounds like an unbeatable deal.
Before you commit yourself to training, though, it’s important to read the fine print. Otherwise, you might be surprised to learn that free doesn’t always mean free.
CDL Training Options
Most employers, regardless of industry, offer some type of on-the-job training. That usually means learning how to operate tools and equipment, or earning the specific operating procedures of that company. Learning to drive an 80-ton big rig, though, is a bit more involved than operating a photocopier or processing paperwork. You have millions of dollars of inventory and equipment at stake, not to mention the lives of everyone on the road.
That’s why the requirements for becoming a CDL driver are so stringent. Drivers must have adequate education and experience before they can operate a truck, but finding people who already have that experience is often challenging for companies. That’s why many trucking operators start their own training programs: To develop a steady stream of well-trained drivers to, presumably, fill the driver’s seats in their trucks.
Most trucking companies that offer training programs have similar arrangements, although the specific details vary according to company. In most cases, prospective drivers can enroll in the course without paying any money, and upon completion, which usually takes about four weeks, they will be eligible to work for the company at once.
However, there’s a catch. In most cases, drivers are required to sign a contract agreeing to work for the trucking company for a defined period (usually one to two years), at which point they are free to leave the company and will not owe a dime. If they move on before the contract is up, though, they’ll be required to repay some or all of the cost of the training program, which is usually several thousand dollars.
Some companies forego the contract requirement, and instead charge drivers for the training course by taking money from their paychecks. Depending on the cost of the course and the number of miles a driver travels, it could take several years to repay the training course — and in most cases, the schools charge interest, increasing the debt owed.
Of course, company-owned schools aren’t the only option for those who want to learn to drive a truck, and there are plenty of schools out there to choose from. Private training schools and some community colleges or technical schools offer truck driver training programs, in some cases for less money — and without any contract restrictions. While you will have to pay out-of-pocket for one of those programs, financial assistance is usually available, and in the case of a community college or technical school, you might qualify for federal student aid.
But What About the Job?
One of the primary draws of company-sponsored training is the prospect of a guaranteed job at the end of the program. However, what many drivers fail to realize is that a job is often far from a sure thing — and even if you do drive for the company, there’s no guarantee that you will be able to fulfill the contract terms.
For example, some drivers have reported completing job training only to find that they spend weeks waiting in the terminal for an available route, or they find that the miles they do get to drive are barely enough to cover the tuition payments, never mind support themselves.
So what does all of this mean for you as an aspiring driver? As with anything, you have to learn more about the trucking industry and the program before enrolling. Some of the questions to consider include:
- What is the real cost of this program?
- What do I have to do to get “free” training? How long do I have to work for the company?
- What other requirements do I have to meet?
- What happens if I don’t fulfill the contract? How much will I owe?
- What other expenses will I have to cover? (Most trucking companies don’t cover room, board, or travel expenses, for example.)
- Will I have a job at the end of the program? What are the terms of a guaranteed job?
- What other alternatives are available?
- What is the reputation of the training program? Will I get a better education elsewhere?
Company-sponsored driver training schools can be a great deal for some people — and a costly mistake for others. Before you commit to a promise of free training, explore all of your options and get all the facts, and you’ll stay in the driver’s seat of your career.