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Want to Get Your CDL License? Here's What to Know

Getting your Commerical Driving License (CDL) is a big deal. It’s an exciting step toward a career as a professional driver, and we hear from lots of veteran drivers that it’s the best job out there. Earning your CDL license isn’t an overnight process, but it’s worth it. Take the time to prepare yourself for each of the steps, and you’ll be on the road before you know it. Here are a few things you should know before you get started.

Types of CDL Licenses

There are three main types of commercial driving license: A, B, and C. They all allow you to operate large motor vehicles, but each is designed for a specific purpose. A CDL A license is considered the most universal because it allows you to also drive most CDL B and CDL C jobs. Here are the distinctions between each type of license

  • CDL A: Allows drivers to operate vehicles with a gross combination weight rating (GVWR) of 26,000 pounds with a towed vehicle of more than 10,000 pounds. This license lets you drive tractor-trailers (also known as semi-trucks, big rigs, etc.) as well as most Class B and Class C vehicles. 
  • CDL B: Permits drivers to operate a vehicle with a GVWR of 26,000 pounds with a towed vehicle of less than 10,000 pounds. This license (sometimes with endorsements) allows you to drive most straight trucks, buses, box trucks, dump trucks, and most Class C vehicles. 
  • CDL C: Allows drivers to operate a commercial vehicle with a GVWR that is less than 26,000 pounds and transports hazardous materials or 16+ passengers. This license is typically used for passenger vans and small HazMat vehicles.

With any of these license types, you may need to supplement with endorsements. Not all trucking jobs require them, so consider what you’re interested in before you commit to adding them. The standard endorsements are (H) Hazardous Materials, (N) Tank Vehicles, (P) Passenger Vehicles, (S) School Buses, and (T) Double and Triple Trailers.

Eligibility

From a Federal perspective, the eligibility requirements to be a truck driver are pretty straight forward. If you can satisfy these requirements, you’re off to a good start.

  1. You must be 18+ for trucking in the same state (intrastate trucking)
  2. You must be 21+ for trucking between states (interstate trucking) or carrying hazardous materials
  3. Don’t have any criminal offenses on your record that disqualify you from earning your CDL

Once you’ve confirmed eligibility at a federal level, look into the specific requirements for the state that will be issuing the license. Every state is a little bit different, but there are several common things you will likely be asked for. 

  • Proof of ID
  • A release of your driving record for the past 10 years
  • Demonstration of medical health
  • Pass a written and skills test
  • A road test fee (usually $50 – $200)
  • Verification that you’ve completed a professional training course

You can only have a CDL License from one state at a time. If you move (or have another reason to transfer your license), make sure you review the CDL license requirements for your new state. 

Choosing a Driving School

Once you have decided what type of CDL License is right for you, it’s time to pick a driving school. There are pros and cons to all programs, so research carefully. Technically, you’re not required to get your license through a driving school and could self-study for your tests. That said, many companies will only hire if they see the driver has gone through a verified driving school. You can also get your license through a company-sponsored program. There are benefits and drawbacks to this, but it’s a good option for many drivers. We recommend that future drivers get their license through some type of verified program. 

As you look for programs, look for the following as signs of credibility: 

  • Is the school/program accredited? (Approved by the Department of Education)
  • Is the school program certified? (Approved by the Department of Transportation)
  • Is the school/program licensed? (The instructors and curriculum meet state guidelines)
  • Is the school/program listed with the Better Business Bureau? Use these ratings to compare programs
  • What’s included in the price of tuition? Quality programs usually offer all the necessary supplies, classroom and over-the-road training, and extra help if requested. 

If you can’t find answers to any of these questions, make sure you get in touch. The driving school or program should be able to answer any questions you have before you get started. Most programs have a similar curriculum and are a mix of classroom and on-the-road instruction. You can expect to cover things like operating a truck, use of electronic logs and other industry tools, and safety procedures among other essentials

Time and Cost

Getting a CDL License is an investment in your future. Like any training program, there is a cost in both time and money. The total cost varies by state, but you can expect to spend about $3,0000 – $7,000 on a training program. As a rule of thumb, the more training time required for your license type and endorsements, the higher the cost of the program. A full-time driving program usually takes around 7 weeks, though it can take longer. Deciding to obtain a CDL License is a big commitment, but it will pay for itself quickly through your new career.

Passing the Test

After you have completed a certified driving program, you must have your Commercial Learning Permit (CLP) for two weeks. Then, it’s time to take your CDL test.

The exam has written and practical components. For the written exam, the test is multiple choice and typically taken on a computer. An 80% passing rate is required for the written exam. For the road test, you must not have more than 30 points deducted from your score.

The examiners will be watching for your ability to maneuver the vehicle, your behavior during the test, and your ability to handle pressure or stressful situations. Reviewing your state CDL training manual and spending practice time in a rig are great ways to prepare. 

You passed! Time to get hired

Now that you have your CDL license, it’s time to start looking for a job. This might sound intimidating, but many driving schools offer resources and connections to their students. That’s a great place to start. You can also use driver-friendly platforms to search for jobs that match your lifestyle and job preferences. As you are offered opportunities, make sure the position is a good fit for you. Ask the recruiter the essential questions about pay, home time, operations, and equipment to get as much information on the job as possible. Soon enough, you’ll be ready to hit the road!

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Terry Christofferson picks up the phone with an upbeat “Hello.” He’s calling from his sunny home just outside of Chico, California. There’s a cheery enthusiasm to his voice, but also the subtle depth of a man who knows hard work. Terry came to Drive My Way like many CDL licensed drivers—looking for a job and expressing interest in one of the many positions on our site.

Except, unlike most drivers, Terry already has a job. Just not in trucking. 

He’s a certified respiratory therapist in California, one of the first states that was reporting positive COVID-19 cases this spring. A respiratory therapist who wants to drive a semi-truck. At a time when medical professionals are desperately needed, Terry Christofferson wants to drive a semi-truck not instead of, but in addition to being a respiratory therapist. And Christofferson has the credentials to do it. Despite working a very secure job in the medical field, he made sure to maintain a CDL A license with Tanker, Hazmat, and Double/Triple endorsements for more than 30 years.

 

maintain a cdl license

Terry and his wife Sondra

Before He Became a Respiratory Therapist

Terry Christofferson grew up on a farm in a small town in North Dakota. Before he completed high school, he moved with his family to northern California. After graduating from high school, Terry started college to become a respiratory therapist. Education doesn’t come without a price tag, but Terry was no stranger to hard work. Life in a small town in the Great Plains is a strong and relentless teacher –  hard work, perseverance, and grit weave the fabric of each day and toughen the hands of the people who live there.

From growing up on a farm, Terry knew how to handle big machinery, so he accepted a position with Viking Freight working on their docks near his California home.

One afternoon, a supervisor asked him to back a semi-truck up to a loading dock. Terry could have driven most agricultural machinery blindfolded, but trucks were an entirely different story.  “Sure I can.” Terry confidently responded and jumped in the cab. One clean movement later, and the truck was up against the dock. His colleagues smirked appreciatively and laughed, “You obviously know how to drive a truck.” 

maintain a CDL licenseOnce a Truck Driver

His humble display of skilled maneuvering quickly upgraded Terry to a job hosteling for Viking Freight. Terry’s skills driving cargo around the freight yard impressed his managers, so he quickly moved up again. Even though he had only been with the company for a few years, Viking Freight sent him to driving school through their company to get his CDL A license to drive a tractor-trailer.

Terry continued driving for Viking Freight through college, and soon enough, Terry was a certified respiratory therapist with a full-time job. With the job security that accompanies the medical profession, many people might have let a truck driving license lapse. Terry wasn’t ready to do that.

“It’s just one of those things that you do… Then pretty soon, you kind of go, “Well I’ve been doing it for this long, I might as well keep going.”

I always thought, “You know, one of these days, I want to go back ‘cause I really miss working on the farm. I enjoy driving trucks… I’m going to go back and do it part-time.”

Always a Truck Driver

open road

Over the years, Terry happily accepted small driving jobs from time to time. Lending a hand here and there. An errand for a friend. He continued to maintain a CDL license. His work as a respiratory therapist remained steady, and his family was close, but every so often, the undeniable call of the open road would whisper.

“[My love of driving] is hard for me to explain. It’s just, it’s enjoyable. It brings back a lot of memories of growing up on the farm…especially if I’m driving in the agricultural industry… I enjoy driving a truck, you know, it’s not something that everybody could do…” 

Speeding down the road at 70mph while maneuvering 30 to 40 tons of truck with the precision of an engineer is no small feat. Most semi-trucks weigh 60,000 to 80,000 pounds, and as a truck driver, you have to be aware of not only your truck but also all of the (often unpredictable) drivers around you. Each time Terry finished a job for a friend, he was reminded of the exhilaration of driving a semi-truck. And each time, the thought crept in, “I should just a do a little bit more of this.”

maintain a CDL licenseDeciding to Maintain a CDL License

In the state of California, to maintain a CDL license (Commercial Driving License), drivers must submit a license application, driving history clearance, a knowledge test, a background check and fingerprinting, and a renewal fee. And so, year after year, momentum carried Terry to the doctor for the requisite physical. It led him to the DMV every two years to retake the tests for his endorsements, right on schedule. 

In time, a few decades and a few miles slipped by. One year, on his regular trip to the DMV, Terry thought it might be time to set aside his CDL license.

He asked the DMV staff, “Well what if I just, I don’t want to do it anymore? What would happen if I decided down the line to go back and get it?” The man’s one-line response settled his decision. “You would have to start from scratch.”

Terry renewed his license

Is truck driving a job or a way of life? Driving is certainly one way to pay the bills, but so is being a mechanic or practicing medicine or starting a business. For many drivers, especially those long haul truckers who drive OTR (Over The Road), the open road is ingrained in the core of their identity. It’s the freedom of open roads and a clear sky. The precision and finesse of mastering a vehicle with immense power and knowing how to handle it, just so. For Terry, each drive in a big rig is also personal. It’s a bond back to his childhood on a North Dakota farm. Agricultural work, in particular, has always connected him through years and miles to the small North Dakota town he once called home.

medical professionalsTwo Essential Professions

When 2020 started, cheerful New Year’s parties rang through the country. Blissfully unaware of the months to come, no one in the United States rang in the decade with even the shadow of a global pandemic. By March, COVID-19 was sweeping from the ports of the coasts to the center of the heartland leaving sickness and death as unwelcome guests in big cities and small towns alike. Storefronts stand empty and the number of Americans filing for unemployment applications steadily climbs. Millions of Americans are suddenly working from home, and we’ve become acutely aware of the essential professions that are keeping this country moving forward. 

Medical professionals and truck drivers are at the top of the list

Four years from now, Terry Christofferson will be happily retired and traveling the world with his wife. But before then, he wants to join his fellow drivers on the road. “Truck drivers are one of those backbones of society that are really being highlighted right now. Absolutely amazing. I mean, every truck driver out there right now should pat themselves on the back… And when I watch it, even though I’m not actually out there doing it with them right now, I still feel pride hearing that on the news.”

Time to Drive

For Terry, it’s time to hit the road. He’s not leaving his job as a respiratory therapist—instead, he’s planning to drive on his days off. After decades of working to maintain a CDL license with several endorsements, Terry is in conversation with a California freight company. In a perfect symmetry that calls back to his Great Plains childhood, he’s hoping to haul agricultural products.

As we wrap up the call, Terry tells me about his wife, children, and grandson. He has a daughter who is becoming a nurse and a son in the construction industry. It’s clear he couldn’t be prouder of them. Their chosen lines of work stand as a living testament to his own duality. Before we hang up, he reiterates his appreciation for all the drivers who are working and delivering essential goods during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“Definitely proud of all the truckers out there. It’s been awesome to listen to them getting interviewed in a profession that doesn’t get recognized enough. And it’s really nice to see them getting recognized.”

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