Free CDL Training & Company Paid CDL Training

Free company sponsored CDL training sounds greats. Why pay for $3,000 – $6,000 for something training that you can get for free? Well, free is rarely free. Company sponsored CDL training is a good fit for some, especially those that have no other way to pay for CDL school. However, many will be better off with a traditional truck driving school. In this chapter of The Ultimate Guide to Truck Driving Schools, we will take a careful look at how company sponsored CDL programs (and the contracts they ask you to sign) are structured.

How Company Sponsored CDL Training is Structured – Contracts and the Price of Free

Trucking companies don’t offer free CDL training out of the goodness of their hearts. Generally, they do it because they need drivers. You get a CDL while the trucking company gets your promise to be a driver for a year, sometimes two. Trucking companies can’t afford to put drivers through CDL training only to have them leave and sign up with a competing trucking company. That’s where the contract comes in.

To make sure that they don’t get the short end of the deal, the trucking company is going to want you to sign a contract. Of course, any time a company creates a contract, the terms are likely to be in their favor. So, If you sign up for company-based CDL training, you must understand the contract you’re signing. Hopefully, the contract leads to a win-win situation. It’s also entirely possible that sometimes the company wins while a students loses. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll win while the company loses.

What Happens if You Don’t Fulfill Your Time or Mileage Requirements?

Usually, there will be a provision in the contract that requires you to work for the company for a certain amount of time – most commonly a year, sometimes two. Some companies prefer to instead state this requirement in terms of miles. Roehl Trucking, for example, requires those that get company sponsored CDL training to agree to drive 120,000 miles for the company. If you quit or are fired before you meet your time or mileage requirements, you will probably have to pay the company back for the cost of the CDL program. This is how the trucking company makes sure that they never lose.

Ask questions and read the contract carefully so that you know exactly what will happen if you quit or are fired. They may prorate the amount that you owe them based on the percentage of the time requirement you have fulfilled. This is the fair and driver-friendly way to structure the contract. However, at some companies you must fulfill the entire time or (mileage) requirement or you have to pay back the entire cost of CDL training. So if you agree to work for them for a year, but only work for them for 11 months, you would owe them them the full cost of the CDL program.

It’s also important to figure out what the company considers the cost of the CDL program to be. When people look into truck driving school, how much it costs is usually one of their first questions. But at a “free” company-sponsored school, you may not think to ask what the cost is. But if everything doesn’t go according to plan and if you find yourself wanting to leave the company before you fulfill the requirement, how much is this going to cost you? This price is what is going to be hanging over your head, and your decision to leave. Let’s go back to our example, Roehl Trucking. If you don’t drive all of the agreed upon 120,000 miles, you’re on the hook for the entire cost of the training program (and they don’t tell you how much that is on their website).

Contracts Kill Your Negotiating Power as an Employee

At any job I’ve had, I’ve always worked hard to be the kind of employee that management and owners want to keep around. This is just the right thing to do. But it also gives you negotiating power if you have a problem or need a favor. Imagine, for example, that you really need a few days off for your sister’s wedding or your child’s high school graduation. If you’re a good employee, hopefully they’ll just agree to give you the time off. But if your employer is uncooperative, you can tell them that you are prepared to quit if they don’t accomodate you. Maybe you really would quit. Maybe you wouldn’t. But it’s in their best interest not to lose you, so they’ll probably find a way to help you out. Now, if you have to pay the company $5,000 if you quit, you’re negotiating from a position of weakness anytime you need to make a request. And if they don’t help you out, you may have no good options.

It is important in any job, but negotiating power is especially crucial in trucking. As a trucker, you’re not guaranteed a certain rate of pay. How much you make is based on how many miles you run. Sometimes your miles, and therefore your pay, plunge for a while. Truckers also get frustrated when they have to spend large amounts of time waiting (often unpaid) in layover for their next load. Other common sore points for truckers include not getting home as often or for as long as expected. Truckers leave their companies all the time for these kinds of logistical issues.

Being able to leave your company at any point gives you a lot of negotiating power. And because the job market for truckers, veteran truckers can be confident that they’ll be able to find another job. They have options. And they have peace of mind. But if you’re beholden to a trucking company because you’ve signed a contract, you’ve lost your options and your peace of mind. This is no small loss. With this in mind, in the rest of this chapter of The Ultimate Guide to Truck Driving Schools, we will examine the pros and cons of free company paid cdl training programs.

Can the Company Dismiss You from the CDL Program?

The goal of traditional trucking schools is to get you your CDL. When they get a student who really struggles to catch on, they’ll generally stick with them and go the extra mile to get them ready to pass their CDL driving test. On the other hand, the goal of a company-based CDL program is to secure the company competent, low-maintenance drivers as quickly and cheaply as possible. At a company-run CDL program, if a student isn’t catching on, sometimes they are sent home. According to the contract, the company ususally has the right to do this. It’s in the companies best interest to cut their losses. It’s basically being fired before you’re hired.

At the CDL school that I attended, there was a student who took six months to get their CDL. Clearly not a natural, he kept coming every day and the instructors kept working with him. A trucking company is never going to stick with a struggling student for months. Frankly, can you blame them? Can you really be confident that they’ll be a safe driver when they struggled mightily to pass the CDL test?

Being dismissed from a company-run program isn’t necessarily the end of the world. But before you sign it,read the company’s contract to make sure that they can’t dismiss you from their CDL program while still requiring you to pay for it. Otherwise, being dismissed might not turn out to be such a bad deal. Maybe you were in trainung 10 days. You got some free training and probably your Commercial Learners Permit. Now, you can enroll in a traditional school with a little practice under your belt, ready to catch on a little quicker the second time around.

What if You Fail the CDL Driving Test?

If a company dismisses you from their CDL training, you should, and usually will not have to pay. But if you complete training only to fail your driving test, you still might have to pay for the training. In this case, the company might not be so sure that they want you as an employee any more. But they’ve theoretically completed your training, so they more easily demand to be paid for it. At Knight Trucking, for example, if you fail your CDL test you can reapply to the training course. But Knight Trucking requires that “previous training costs or fees must be paid in full before re-admission to the CDL course in authorized.” This could definitely give you a bad day.

The CDL test is not easy. People fail it all the time. So, especially if you’re going to a company-run program, make sure you understand what’s going to happen if you don’t pass your CDL driving test. No CDL. No job. A bill for several thousand dollars. No good.

Is the Background Check Done Before You Start CDL Driving School?

Usually, and preferably, companies will do your background check and pull your driving record before they admit you to their CDL academy. If the trucking company waits to do a background check until after you go through training, you could end up with a CDL only to find out that they won’t hire you. In this case, you find yourself with a CDL, but no job. And now the trucking company might want you to pay them back right away for the expense of driving school.

Ideally, the trucking company completely clears you for hire before CDL academy starts. Problems can arise when they instead just skim your application for glaring issues. To avoid this situation, make sure you fill out your application honestly and completely. Think through anything and everything that could be on your driving or criminal record and detail it clearly. Whatever you do, don’t lie on your application! If you’re worried about something in particular, mention it to the trucking company to make sure it’s not going to be a problem down the road. If there is a problem in your history, it’s best to realize it before you go through driving school and become responsible for the bill.

Your Accommodations May Be a Hotel Room

If you decide to go with a traditional truck driving school, it is likely that you can find one within driving distance of your home. On the other hand, company-sponsored CDL programs are fewer and farther between, and typically it’s better to chose the company that you ultimately want to work for instead of the one that has a training facility near you. With a company-sponsored CDL program, you will probably need to live at out a hotel for a few weeks. Companies will often help you with arrangements, splitting up rooms among students and providing transportation to and from training facilities.

Sometimes the cost of accomodations is included in the company sponsored cdl training deal. Other times, you could be required to pay for it upfront. The trucking company may also recover the costs of accomodations (and sometimes food) by taking a specified amount of money out of your paychecks for a certain amount of time.

What Type of Trucks Will Be Used for Trainging? Manual Transmission?

For a trucking company, one advantage of running their own free CDL training program is that they can train drivers to drive their trucks. If most of their freight is refrigerated, for example, then you’re probably going to spend some of your free CDL training learning the nuances of driving refrigerated trailers (reefers). This is not necessarily a bad thing, unless it comes at the expense of other parts of your training. But it probably won’t transfer to your next trucking job. However, if the company has a fleet of trucks with automatic transmissions, this is a problem.

Fleets of automatics have become more common, especially at some of the bigger companies. But most big rigs are still manuals, and you’ll need to know how to drive one to keep your job options open. I cannot recommend signing up for any trucking school that trains on automatics. Learning with an automatic transmission might be easier at the beginning, but you will eventually regret this massive hole in your driving repertoire.

Is “Free” Coming Out of Your Paycheck?

Free is rarely free. If you want to understand if a company paid CDL training programs is really a good idea, you have to look at the big picture. To reclaim the cost of “free” CDL programs, many trucking companies will deduct a specific amount of money from your paychecks over a set amount of time. Swift, for example, puts the cost of their Swift Trucking School at $3,900, which is definitely a reasonable price. They deduct $150 from your paycheck for the first 26 months that you work for them to pay back the cost of Swift Trucking School. This isn’t free – this is an interest free loan.

Other times “free” really does seem more like “free.” If you never have to pay back the cost of driving school so long as you work for the company the required amount of time, then your training reallly is free. A closer look, however, offers a different perspective. When no repayment is required, first year drivers usually just make a lot less money – less money than second year drivers and less money than first year drivers at other companies.

For example, Imaginary Transport Alpha (ITA) might train you to get your CDL for free. At ITA, your first year salary is $36,000. Now, Imaginary Transport Beta (ITB), they charge $3,640 for their CDL academy ($70 taken out of your paycheck each week for a year). At ITB, your first year salary comes out to $40,000. With ITB, you have to pay back the cost of your CDL, but you still end up $360 richer. Most likely, second year drivers at both companies make similar amounts of money. What’s really going on at ITA is that they’re reducing your pay to make up for the cost of training you to get your CDL.

If you really want to know if a “free” program is a good deal, research how much you can expect to make in your first year at a company with free CDL training and compare that to other companies. Only then can you make an informed decision. Even if you have to make payments, paying for truck driving school yourself may end up being more cost effective because you can get a much better paying first job. Do your research – it will probably pay off handsomely.

Company Paid CDL Training – Earn While You Train

Somtimes, you can actually earn an income right away through a company paid CDL training program. If you have pressing financial obligations, income while you train can be a real help. Roehl Trucking, for example, will pay you $500 a week during four weeks of driving training. And then when you’re on the road with a Driver Trainer for 2–3 more weeks, they’ll pay you $90 a day. If you need money now and not a year from now, this can be a big help. If you have the money to pay for truck driving school, is this kind of program going to save you money? Probably not. Again, you’re goint to need to do some research and some math to find out.

A completely different alternative for free CDL training is to get a CDL job in the oil fields. This strategy is highly dependent on circumstances. Are oil prices up or down? Are we in a boom or a bust? Is a company having trouble finding enough people who have a CDL. Before I worked in the oil fields, I paid for my own CDL through a traditional truck driving school. When I started my first oil field job, I was annoyed to find other new guys who didn’t have a CDL. Not only did they not need a CDL to get hired, the oil field company was willing to pay them about $18 an hour to go to a local CDL school. They got paid about $3000 to get the same training I paid over $4000 for. Now that is a good deal.

Now, this is rare. The usually rule of thumb for the oil fields is that the CDL is the key to your first job. But if you’re at the right place at the right time, it is sometimes possible to truly get paid to get your CDL. If you’re interested in this approach, you’re going to need to do some legwork and have some luck. If oil prices are down (which is true as of this writing in 2015), you’ll probably be wasting your time. However, if you can find a place in the middle of a boom, you’ve got a chance. Focus especially on areas where it’s hard to get people to move, like North Dakota, Alaska, or even the Middle East. When money and oil are flowing, profits can be so big that it’s worth it for a company to just pay to train the CDL drivers they need.

Tuition Reimbursement Programs – A Safer Bet

Tuition reimbursement is a great alternative to free or company paid CDL training. These programs have become increasingly common as trucking companies struggle to recruit enough drivers. Instead of doing the training themselves, these trucking companies offer to help you pay back the cost of truck driving school. There are different arrangements, but most commonly they give you an extra chunk of money every month for a specified amount of time to help you pay off your trucking school loan. Or if you’re paying back your truck driving school in monthly payments, the trucking company can often send the payment directly to your truck driving company. Schneider, for example, has a great tuition reimbursement program. They offer up to $6,000 in tuition reimbursement to recent trucking school grads. After you’ve driven for them for a month, they’ll start sending $150 each month to either your bank account or your truck driving school.

This can certainly be a great deal. And it’s easy to see how it helps them recruit drivers. Again, you need to do your homework. Don’t just consider the extra money you’re going to get from the tuition reimbursement program – figure out about how much you’re going to make in your first year and compare that with competing companies. That way you’ll know if the tuition reimbursement really is as appealing as it sounds.

The nice thing about these programs is there is usually not a contract, and therefore an obligation, involved. They keep paying you each month until you either reach the specified amount or you leave. If things don’t work out, you’re still able to walk away without a problem.

Paid or Free CDL Training vs Traditional Trucker Training

Before you sign up for a free company-run CDL academy, take a careful look at the tradional truck driving schools in your area. How much do they cost? Could you keep your job while you went to school? And most importantly, do local trucking schools offer payment plans or loans? Many will allow you to wait a couple months or more to start making payments. This is a great option. If a traditional truck driving school will allow you to defer the cost of school until you’re making good money as a trucker, what’s the point of getting locked into a company-run plan? This is especially true if you can get hired on with a company that offers a tuition reimbursement plan.

Given how common it for trucking schools to allow you to defer tuition and then make monthly payments, it is usually possible to find some option other than signing a contract for “free” CDL training. “Free” company sponsored CDL training programs are rarely the most flexible or cost-effective way to get into trucking unless you just have no other options. If there are no trucking schools in your area with flexible payment options, you could always find a school a few hours away from you that does. It will cost a bit of money in travel and hotel expenses, but most company-sponsored CDL academies are going to have these same expenses.

The bottom line is that free and paid opportunities are not always as great as they first sound. To make an informed decision, you’re going to have to do some research and some math. But it’s time well spent. A few hours could mean several thousand dollars to your bank account over the next year.