If someone says “trucker,” what kind of vehicle comes to mind? Tractor-Trailer? Semi Truck? Big Rig? Eighteen-wheeler? As you may know, these four terms all mean the same thing. And no matter what term came to your mind, this is probably the “truck” that you associate with truckers. And for good reason. At about 70 feet long, most are about the size of a Brontosaurus. And with about 2 million on the road in the U.S., they are ubiquitous. This is what most of the nations iconic long-haul truckers drive. To drive a full-size eighteen-wheeler you need a Class A CDL.
If you know that you want to be a trucker and if you know for sure that you want to drive a real big rig, then get Class A CDL training. End of story. If this is you, then learn how to get a Class A license in the third chapter of The Ultimate Guide to Truck Driving Schools. If you haven’t given a lot of thought to your options, or if you want to learn about some frequently over-looked opportunities, then stay tuned.
Class A License Training is NOT Your Only Option
Many experts tell aspiring truckers that Class A is the only way to go. But a Class A drivers license is not the only good option. Before you spend $3000 – $6000 on truck driving school, it is important to understand what you are signing up for and why.
When people talk about truck driving school, they almost always mean Class A CDL training. Class B training could be the better option for you, but truck driving schools rarely even mention this option. Why? First, many truck driving schools don’t offer Class B training. Secondly, even if schools do offer multiple options, their Class A training will be the most expensive (and the most profitable for them).
If it ends up being the better route for you, you can save loads of money and time by getting Class B Training instead of Class A. Let’s take a look at how to get a Class B license, the pros and cons of both options and see if we can figure out which option is right for you.
The Commercial Drivers License: Your Passport to a Career in Trucking
Before we dissect the differences between the two main types of CDLs, I want to make sure you understand what a CDL is. CDL stands for Commercial Drivers License. This special type of license is needed to drive certain types of vehicles which are more difficult and/or dangerous to drive. When do you need a CDL? The technical explanation is wordy and confusing, which is why it is common on the internet to see debates about whether or not a CDL is required to drive a particular vehicle. I’ll keep it as simple as possible.
If a vehicle (excluding any trailers) is over 26,001 pounds, you need a CDL. If you are hauling a trailer that weighs more than 10,000 pounds, you need a CDL. If a vehicle is designed to hold 16 or more people, you need a CDL. If a vehicle is transporting enough hazardous materials to require placards (which could be just a few pounds of explosives or radioactive material), you need a CDL. That’s all. 4 Rules.
Class A vs Class B vs Class C License: The Nitty Gritty
Lets take a look at the different types of CDLs. I know I’ve set this up as a Class A vs Class B thing, but there is actually such a thing as a Class C license. A Class C CDL (with a Hazmat Endorsement) is all you need to drive a small vehicle carrying hazardous materials. A Class C license is also adequate to drive a vehicle that is small (less than 26,000 pounds), but capable of carrying 16 or more people. A good example would be the shuttle busses you see at airports. I’m going to ignore Class C drivers licenses from here on out because there are not really that many jobs requiring a Class C CDL. And when one is needed, getting your Class C CDL is usually part of new-hire training. If you specifically need a Class C license to get a particular job, you may have to get Class B training.
That brings us to the two heavyweights: Class A and Class B. The Class A is the king of CDLs because a Class A CDL can be used to drive all 3 classes of commercial vehicles: A, B and C. In the same way, a Class B can be used to drive a CDL Class C vehicle. The difference between a Class A and Class B Drivers License is small, but important. Again, I’ll spare you the wordy government definitions, and keep it as simple as I can. If a vehicle weighs (excluding any trailers) over 26,001 pounds, you need either a Class A or Class B to drive it. If the trailer weighs over 10,000 pounds, a Class B License won’t work – you have to have a Class A.
The Combination Vehicle: Why a Class A Drivers License Is Worth Its Weight in Gold
If you’re not familiar with the term “combination vehicle,” it just means that there is a tractor (aka truck) in the front pulling some type of trailer in the back. There is a hinge where the trailer connects to the tractor which is key to how a combination vehicle handles.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the most common type of combination vehicle on the road is the box (aka van) semi-trailer, which, as it sounds, is a giant box on wheels. Some other common kinds include flatbeds, refrigerated containers (aka reefers), tankers, and car carrier trailers.
When I worked in the oil fields, most of the trailers I hauled were actually mobile pieces of machinery: frac pumps, blenders, and hydration units, for example. Because of their size and weight, they handle similarly to a standard box trailer. Double and triple trailers, where multiple trailers are hooked together, are also combination vehicles. Because the trailers of all of these combination vehicles (at least in their full-sized configuration) easily exceed 10,000 pounds, you need a Class A drivers license to drive one.
So, to oversimplify: CDL Class A = combination vehicle. CDL Class B = straight truck or bus. Of course, as we discussed, a Class B Drivers License can be used to haul a trailer up to 10,000 pounds. But because commercial trailers can and frequently do exceed 50,000 pounds, the Class A License is the king of the combination vehicle, which is the king of interstate commerce. Now, before you close your browser and call your nearest trucking school, realize that a Class B License can still be the ticket to a great job. And it’s much easier to attain. So let’s take a look at how to get a Class B license.
Why Would You Want a Class B Drivers License: Money & Time
Class A vs Class B. You’ve learned enough now to know that Class A wins everytime. It is the better license. You can get Class B driving jobs with a Class A, but not vice versa. So why would anyone want to get a Class B? Simple: money and time. Typically, Class B CDL training is much cheaper and much faster.
Of course, a Class A commercial drivers license gives you more options. If you’re a millionaire looking for a reason to get out of the house, then by all means, go get Class A CDL training. You will have better credentials and more options. Otherwise, there are three questions you need to answer for yourself.
1 – Do you need a Class A to get a desirable trucking job?
2 – Can you afford the cost of a Class A school?
3 – Can you afford the time it takes to get Class A CDL training?
OK, I know what you’re thinking. Can I get a good job with a Class B? How much of a difference in money and time are we talking here? First, you absolutely can get a good job with a Class B. Whether or not Class B jobs are better or worse than Class A jobs depends entirely on your needs and preferences. We’ll explore this at depth in a minute.
What about money, the single biggest roadblock for most people who want to get a Commercial Drivers License? Class A driver training is likely to set you back $4000 – $6000, sometimes more. On the other hand, you should be able to find Class B driver training for $2000 or less. Estimated Savings: $2000-$4000. Why is Class B training so much cheaper? Because it is so much shorter.
Get Your CDL In a Week!
That’s right – many Class B programs are only a week long! 40 hours of class time is the most common length of a Class B Commercial Drivers License program. Some are a bit longer, but if you run into one longer than 80 hours, start asking questions. With good instruction and focused driving time, 40 hours should be long enough to get the hang of driving a straight truck. Compare that to Class A training, which typically takes 3–6 weeks, and it becomes clear why Class B training is so much more affordable.
To get Class A training, the vast majority of students have to quit their jobs. When I was at trucking school, I talked to about 30 people and didn’t find a single one who was still holding a job down. It’s just really tough to do both at once. Some community colleges offer night classes and this is a good option for some. But it could mean months of working during the day and going to trucking school at night, which could be pretty exhausting. Not a good state to be in when learning to drive a vehicle capable of flattening a car like a pancake.
On the other hand, keeping your job while getting Class B training is very doable. At around 40 hours of class time, schools can offer some convenient class schedules. Some schools have options to go for 2 or 3 weekends in a row. Others offer night classes for a few weeks. Work your butt off for a few weeks and you have a Class B drivers license. Others go with more of a work week schedule along the lines of Monday to Friday 8–5. Even with this schedule, you could take a week of vacation and get your Class B. Why not keep your current job until you find a trucking job? Minimize your risk. If your finances are tight, this strategy can really take the pressure off. Let’s face it, there are many of us who want to become truckers, but we can’t because going without a paycheck for a month or two is not an option.
On the down side, it is harder to find Class B training. It is frequently an additional course offered by a school that specializes in Class A Training. Only about 10% of truck driving schools offer Class B training. If you live in a large metropolitan area, you should be able to find at least one option for Class B training. If you don’t live near a large city, there may not be any Class B Truck Driving Schools nearby. But it won’t hurt to look. You could also attend an out-of-town school and stay in a hotel for a few days.
Why is Class B CDL Training So Much Shorter?
Class B CDL school takes much less money and time, and for good reason. Class B schools typically use straight trucks (sometimes dump trucks or busses). Compared to an 18-wheeler, learning to drive these vehicles is relatively easy.
When I drove a straight truck for a delivery job, one of my stops was at the Kettering Tower in downtown Dayton, Ohio. At 30 stories, it is the tallest building in Dayton and I filled vending machines on the top floor. It was a lounge with windows in all directions and the views were great. Descending down a tight ramp to below street level and backing the truck into a loading dock which was only 10“ wider than the truck was not so great. At least not at first. The space was so tight that both sides of the truck would be no more than 5” from concrete pillars. When I first realized where I was supposed to put the truck, I wasn’t sure that I could do it. But after a couple of tries, I realized it really wasn’t that hard. Trust your mirrors. Go slow. It was that simple. If things get too close for comfort, either get out and look or pull forward and start again. This was rarely necessary.
It is not the easiest thing in the world, but the physics of backing up a straight truck or bus are much more straight forward (or should i say straight backward) than a tractor-trailer. A straight truck or a bus backs up just like a car. Of course it is more difficult due to the size. And you may not have the benefit of a windshield-mounted rearview mirror. But when I drove a straight truck around a busy city, backing into the loading dock of the Kettering Tower was the most difficult thing that I had to do. And it only took a few minutes to learn.
How to Get a Class A License – Driving a Big Rig is Not Easy
While driving a straight truck turned out to be much easier than I anticipated, driving a semi truck turned out to be much harder. Getting a feel for how the trailer is going to follow the truck is like a sixth sense–an art that takes time to develop. In addition, there is a whole series of concerns unique to tractor-trailers: jack-knifing, coupling and uncoupling a trailer, landing gear, and electrical and air line connections. While semi trucks can exceed 70 feet, straight trucks are rarely longer than 45 feet. Nor are they likely to approach the 80,000 pound range common of semi trucks.
When I was in truck driving school, I spent my first day on the backing range alone in a tractor-trailer just trying to go forward and backward in a straight line. I was the only new student from New Mexico in a school of mostly Texans. At the time, Texas students only had to learn how to back straight up and parallel park. New Mexico had much more difficult testing procedures (now required of all states), which also mandated learning the offset manuever and the 90-degree (alley manuever). So they had an instructor dedicated to the few New Mexico students. But he was occupied the day I got started, so they just asked me if I knew how to drive a manual and when I indicated that I did, they plunked me in an old clunker of a truck and told me to practice going backwards and forwards while staying in the lines. So that is what I did. It wasn’t intuitive. It wasn’t pretty. After two and a half hours of practice, I wasn’t even close to the comfort or skill I enjoyed after backing a straight truck for 5 minutes.
Driving a big rig is not easy. There are people who have no business driving a car. Even more people should not be driving a straight truck. And still more people should not be behind the wheel of a semi truck. But I believe that the vast majority of people absolutely can learn to drive a semi. If you have a good driving record and are able to maintain your focus on the road, don’t worry about it. You’ll get there. Keep your composure, apply yourself and you’ll be fine. Just realize that it’s going to take time. There is a learning curve. Just learning how to back up a tractor-trailer can easily take a week or two.
Class A Drivers License School is Going to Take a While (and it Should)
In my experience at Truck Driving School, the better students were just nearing proficiency after the third week. My stay at Truck Driving School lasted 6 weeks because it was tough to get a driving test scheduled in New Mexico. In the end, I think that was for the best. After 3 weeks in CDL school, I don’t think I would have passed the test. After 4 weeks, I might have passed, but it would have been tight. I’m pretty sure I would have passed after 5 weeks. After 6 weeks, I had the whole thing–driving and maneuvers–down pat and nearly aced the exam. The few New Mexicans at this truck driving school followed this pattern pretty closely.
My Texas friends had a very different CDL training experience. Many of them passed the test after 2.5 – 3 weeks. I would congratulate them and they would tell me that they didn’t really feel like they knew what they were doing. At that time, the test in Texas was pretty easy. The truck driving school’s strategy seemed to be to keep taking the students to test until they passed and get them out the door as quickly as possible. That way they needed fewer instructors on salary. The problem is that many of the students did not feel adequately prepared for their first job.
A school may be able to get you a CDL in three weeks, but this is not necessarily a good thing. If you are interested in a three week program, ask questions about driving time and instructor to student ratio. Class A CDL training should probably take 4–6 weeks. There is a very good reason that Class A training takes so much longer than Class B training. Learning to safely drive an 18-wheeler takes time.
How are Class B Jobs Different?
So far we’ve established a few key things. We know what types of vehicles require a Class B license and which require a Class A. We know how to get a Class B license. We know that the Class A License is better because you can drive Class B vehicles with it, but not vice versa. However, Class B CDL training is much cheaper and much shorter. So, if you’re with me so far – you like the idea of getting your CDL in a week and saving a few thousand dollars – we need to look at what kind of job prospects you’ll have with a Class B.
With a Class A drivers license, it is entirely possible to get several jobs lined up before you even graduate from truck driving school. If you don’t have a bad driving record or a criminal history, and you can pass a drug test, you will be able to find a job. However, most rookie truckers start out with over-the-road jobs where they are out for 10 days or more. The Class B job market is generally a bit more competitive. How much competition you will encounter will vary greatly by city and region. Actually, even with a Class A drivers license, local driving jobs are likely to be competitive. Still, there are a couple of good bets for turning your Class B CDL into a job.
First, you can drive a bus – school bus, city bus, etc. These jobs are usually easy to come by. They don’t pay as well as long haul trucking jobs, but they’re not too far off. City bus drivers average about $39,410 per year while school bus drivers average about $29,910 per year. Not bad at all. Of course, instead of enjoying the solitude of the open road, you’ll be weaving through busy city streets. You’ll also have the opportunity to meet interesting people, though you may be imagining people or kids who are interesting for all the wrong reasons. Whether or not this sounds appealing is definitely a personal preference.
The second good bet for a Class B job has a truly great perk. But like bus driving, it is a great fit for some people and not for others.
Get in Great Shape While Getting Paid
There are many good Class B jobs driving various types of delivery trucks. Many times it will be some kind of medium sized straight truck, but it could also be a dump truck or something like a propane delivery truck. The pay of these jobs varies quite a bit, but frequently they are competitive with Class A jobs. How can these Class B jobs be competitive with Class A jobs when they require substantially less training? Manual Labor.
Driving a delivery truck, you are likely to spend 50% or less of your time driving. I used to have a job filling vending machines with soda, chips, candy bars and even microwavable meals. I was young and in shape, but found it strenuous and tiring. Part of that can be attributed to 11–12 hour work days without a lunch hour. Still, a plastic pallet of soda bottles can weigh over 30 pounds. Maybe that seems heavy to you. Maybe not. But once you lift dozens or hundreds of pallets on and off of a truck day after day, the impact on your musculoskeletal system can add up.
Personally, I was sore for a few weeks after signing up for this kind of delivery job. Of course, that can be a good thing, especially if you lift in a manner safe for your back. You can stay in shape and look great without having to get a gym membership. You’ve probably noticed that most UPS, Fedex, Pepsi, and Budweiser drivers look pretty fit. There is a reason for that. It does get easier after a few weeks, but delivery jobs can feel like much harder “work” than cruising down the highway. I actually think it can be a pretty nice balance. You can get some peace and relaxation driving for a while and then load/unload to get your blood flowing before taking another driving “break.”
Both bus driving and straight truck delivery Class B jobs usually have you sleeping in your own bed every night. Your significant other and kids won’t forget what you look like. Huge.
Stop! Maybe You Don’t Need to Sign Up for Any CDL Training
Perhaps the Class B job you are interested in is willing to train you and let you use their vehicle for the driving test. How do you feel about driving a bus? If you can’t afford the cost of Class B training, one strategy would be to get a bus driving job. Typically, on-the-job training for a bus driver includes getting your Class B drivers license. School bus driving jobs, for example, are generally easy to come by. Stay on long enough that they are happy with your service and then get a Class B truck driving job without paying for school.
If you go with this strategy, depending on the post-bus-driving job you want, you may need to find a way to circumvent an Air Brakes Restriction. Most school busses don’t have air brakes. If you take the Class B driving test in a vehicle without air brakes, an Air Brakes Restriction is placed on your CDL limiting the kinds of vehicles you are permitted to drive. You may need to find a creative solution if you want to switch from driving a school bus to a vehicle with air brakes. Otherwise, a bus driving job could be a very cost effective way to get a CDL.
Class A vs Class B CDL – And the Winner is … it Depends
OK, we’ve come a long way. We not only know when we need a CDL – we know what kind CDL we need for various vehicle types. We know that a Class A License is the most useful, but that it comes at a cost – money and time. At this point, you’re probably leaning one way or another. Let’s double check your work. Take this little quiz and see which profile sounds more like you and your situation. If you have a minute, write your answers down.
You Should Go the Traditional Route and Get a Class A Commercial Drivers License If …
- You want to drive a big rig.
- You want to see the country.
- You are willing to be away from home for 2–3 weeks at a time.
- You are happy to sleep in your truck.
- You can afford $4000 to $6000 for tuition.
- You can afford to not work for about a month while in CDL school.
- You see trucking as a long-term career.
- You want to maximize your earning potential.
- You really like to drive.
- You want to work in the oil fields.
- You want to keep your options open.
- Learning how to get a Class A license, including driving and backing a semi, sounds exciting to you.
- You are looking for solitude.
- You’re goal is to eventually be an Owner Operator.
- You want to see something new everyday.
You May Want to Save Some Money & Time by Getting a Class B Commercial Drivers License If …
- You want to be home every night.
- You don’t mind weaving through congested city streets all day.
- You are happy to do some lifting and loading or some managing of people.
- You don’t mind driving the same route day after day.
- You cannot afford CDL Class A training.
- You don’t have the time required for CDL Class A training.
- You have a specific job in mind that requires a CDL Class B training.
- You have kids at home.
- You are married or have a significant other.
- You don’t like sitting for long periods of time.
- You have a family member who frequently needs help or is in bad health.
- You see trucking as a short-term solution until you to can go back to school, start a business, etc..
- A friend or a family member own a business that needs Class B drivers
You Know What Kind of CDL to Get … Now What?
At this point, you may be excited to realize that a Class B is just the solution you were looking for. If that’s the case, see if you can find Class B CDL training near you. And check out the local Class B job market.
On the other hand, maybe you’re right where you started – heading for Class A training. If that’s the case, hopefully you’ve learned a few things and feel even more confident in your decision to seek Class A training. Knowledge leads to good decisions and an uncommon kind of confidence that comes from not only knowing what you’re doing, but why. Invaluable stuff when switching careers.
Speaking of knowledge, in the next part of the Ultimate Guide to Trucking, we’ll take an in depth look at all the requirements you have to fulfill to get your CDL. Yes, you have to pass a driving test. But there is much more to it than that. Keep reading and make sure you have all your bases covered.