How To Survive CDL Training On The Road

by Rainy
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Leaving the security of a good-paying job and heading off to CDL training is a daunting task. Beyond the fear of change, living on a trainer's truck can be intimidating. 

  • What does a trainer expect?
  • What if I mess up?
  • How many mistakes are too many?
  • How will he/she react if I have an accident?
  • What if the person is crazy or miserable?
  • What if he smells and doesn't let us shower?
  • What if he thinks I tried to steal something?

  These things can cause added stress to the already arduous journey of training for your CDL. Some are legitimate questions and some are your imagination running away with you. Simple communication can set aside most of these issues.

Keep Things In Perspective

Foremost, understand that all trainers were once students. Even the most miserable and arrogant driver still remembers how frustrating it was learning to back up a truck. None of us were born with a steering wheel in our hands, despite the wild stories you may hear. Regardless of whether your trainer is a jerk or the best guy on the planet, deep down you both know that you are no worse than any other driver who attempted this. Be determined to learn and you will get through it. It only takes time and the ability to apply your lessons. 

Your Attitude Will Affect Your Performance and Ability to Learn

Next, understand that the trainer is a guide and resource, but you are the captain of your training. Yep, I said that. If your training is not on the right path, it's time to change direction. I am a rather active trainer, while others are more passive. 

At the end of every backing session, as a trainer, I ask my student, "What did you do wrong, and how could you have done better?" At the end of every day, I discuss what they did safely and what needs improvement. I also ask, "Is there anything we need to discuss? Do you have any questions or concerns? Is there anything you would like to work on?" 

Not all trainers will be this direct, but you can take matters into your own hands with questions, discussions, and observations.

So many trainees complain about not getting enough backing practice. The truth is you will need to practice backing for an entire year before you'll feel confident in your skills. Training lasts weeks two months or so, depending on the company, and most trainees will tell you they didn't get enough backing. So how do you take control and try to get the practice? 

It is simple. Ask. 

If the trainer doesn't set time aside, create it yourself. Even in a teaming situation, the truck will be parked for a certain amount of time. If you only have a 30-minute break or have an hour or two of downtime, ask the trainer if you can practice backing in the truck stop. There are some huge lots, mostly in Petros and Truckstops of America. With 350 parking spaces, you can go to the back of the lot and practice without the interference of other trucks. Place some trash cans on the sides of the parking spaces and get some practice. 

If you park at a quiet, large customer you may get to practice backing at the dock, or at least in a parking space. It won't hurt to ask. When entering a customer, regardless of who was driving when you arrived, ask if you can back into the dock. Don't argue over it though. If they deny you the opportunity, get out and watch the setup, watch the trailer tires, and watch how the tractor maneuvers. You can learn a ton from watching the angles.

Ask For Feedback From Your Trainer

Ask repeatedly for feedback. Ask a few times a week. 

I've been working on my following distance, can you see an improvement? 

When I went down that hill, I downshifted too late. Next time I will take it in a lower gear, but did you notice anything else I could improve?

And like it or not, it may seem like kissing up, but compliment them. "You seem to trip plan in your head, how do you do that? What are you factoring into the equation? Your backing is incredible, and I really want to learn how you do it, what points are you looking at when you back?" 

You'll catch more flies with honey, so use it. Not only could this get you the answers you want, but it will show your trainer you are truly interested in learning.

How Can My Behavior Affect Training?

Most truckers are Type A control freaks. That is what makes us great drivers. Every decision out here is our responsibility. Because of that, each driver has a set way of doing things. They often have a certain place for every object on the truck and preferred ways of doing things. 

As trainers, we accept that we are giving up a certain amount of privacy to bring a student on a truck, but a student can easily violate that privacy by snooping through our cabinets, moving tools, or eating our food without asking. 

If you invited a stranger into your house and they immediately rummaged through your bedroom closet, how would you feel? Be respectful, and be sure to always return items to the proper place. As a really nice gesture, wash the mirrors or windows once in a while to show some appreciation. Little things go a long way. 

Keep in mind that you can do things your way once you're in your own truck, but for now do things the trainer's way, even if that way doesn't make sense to you.

Be prepared to keep your belongings on your top bunk. That is your space. If a trainer offers you a shelf, a cabinet, or a cubby hole then great! Say thanks and appreciate it, but don't expect it.

You'll get one free shower every time you get fuel. If you need a shower without getting any fuel, you may have to pay for it yourself. Your trainer is not required to pay for your food or any other personal expenses. Do not expect to be given anything, and appreciate anything the trainer offers. I gave each of my students $400 in items, including a CB, headset, cash, or a GPS. It was not required, but more of a "thank you" for being awesome and wanting to learn.

Something else to understand is the vast diversity in trucking. Drivers come from many ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds. Geographic locations play a huge part in personality development. In today's society, people only want "diversity" if it does not offend them. (I bet I offended someone with that statement!) 

Northeasterners are blunt and live at a faster pace than someone from Alabama. My directness might offend someone from California. A New Yorker saying, "Hey, you keep turning the wheel too hard and you are screwing up. Straighten it." might offend someone from a more laid back community. Because of this, you need to toughen up, not only with your trainer but with anyone on the road. 

If your feelings get hurt by someone yelling at you, stay home. Drivers will yell, honk the horn, and give you hand gestures. Yard dogs will holler that you put the trailer in the wrong spot or forgot to slide the tandems. Security officers will chase you away from parking spots, and police officers will yell at you for whatever reason you give them.

I am not saying to suffer abuse, assault, or ridicule. Stick up for yourself. Decide for yourself what is tolerable, and what is not. My trainer nastily said to me, "Why are you grinding my gears?" I asked if she expected a student to never grind any gears, and why she became a trainer. That was that. No need to ask for a new trainer. 

One of our forum members complained about his trainer so much, about every little detail, the company's response was, "Maybe trucking isn't for you. We know it is tough out there, but he has had dozens of successful students. Not everyone can hack it." He then was sent home.

What if I Get a Bad Trainer?

A forum member called me complaining about his "bad" trainer. "The guy is likable, but he does stupid things. He is always waiting until the last minute to leave for the customer, he gets lost all the time cause he follows the GPS, he has violated his clock twice and he even had an accident cause he didn't swing wide enough. Then he had me fill out the accident report. He purposely leaves himself ‘On Duty not Driving' so that his 70 runs out quickly, causing me to run most of the miles while he is taking 34 hour breaks. I am learning absolutely nothing from this guy."

After a couple of minutes, I asked, "Did you hear what you just said? You have learned a lot." Even over the phone, I pictured this guy's eyes bulging out in disbelief. "It's true. You learned the consequences of blindly following the GPS, how unnecessary On Duty time can destroy your pay week, how to avoid accidents by swinging wider, and the importance of leaving early. You even learned how taking 34-hour breaks can refill your 70-hour clock. And through no fault of your own, you learned to do an accident report and how to get Road Assist to send a tow truck. Is there anything else you think you haven't learned?"

It is true that not everyone who excels at something should teach. Many times the trainee needs to recognize this, learn as much as possible, and form some bonds with other experienced drivers willing to help them learn. Use as many experienced drivers as you can, because each one will have a different perspective or reasons for doing things the way they do.

Understanding the Lease Op Trainer

Complaints about lease operator trainers pop up every now and again, and they often have a common theme, "I am just a steering wheel holder. He is just using me for the miles and hours. I am just a mule." 

There is a lot of truth to these statements, yet trainees think they are getting used for "the big bucks". The trainer is under a lot of pressure to make that lease payment. He is under a huge amount of pressure from the responsibility of running a business. He needs a student on the truck just to make a living. Then, ironically, he will brag about how much he is making. If that were true he wouldn't have a student in the first place and he wouldn't be stressed out. 

Also, a miserable trainer who treats you with disdain would probably prefer to be driving solo. He is training because he has to. It's kinda sad, huh? Sometimes I almost pity them for choosing to lease because many did so with the misconceptions about the daily life of a company driver.

One of my lease operator trainers had to borrow money from his mother to pay his cell phone bill. Another used to borrow cash from me to get food from "roach coaches" parked at customer lots. That same trainer would make us wait at a receiver after unload until we got the next load because she didn't want to waste the fuel driving six miles to the truck stop. 

I once threw $10 at her and said, "Here, we have been here for 12 hours, and I really need to pee." Unprofessional of me, yes, but so was her keeping us from going to a truck stop. 

There are a few reasons lease operators won't let students practice backing:

1) You are wasting their costly diesel

2) If you hit something, they have to pay the insurance deductible (up to $2,000 at my company, plus any tow bill)

3) If you take 20 minutes to back into a door, that is 20 minutes later you get unloaded, and 20 minutes of "road time" you just wasted getting to the next load.

Try to imagine how incredibly stressful it is to be "forced" into a position to train new drivers who could kill you. Then to worry whether they will cost you thousands of dollars in accidents, while you are trying to save every penny available. Then they justify their decision to lease and encourage you to do the same in an attempt to save their ego from their decision.

One thing I absolutely hate about the entire lease op trainer situation is how the dynamic causes friction. The student came to get their CDL and work for the company. The trainer made a deal with the company to pay for all wages, Workman's Comp, employers taxes, and any insurance premiums/deductibles that arise. The trainer assumes all monetary liability for any damages caused. Essentially, the lease driver is the employer, not the company. 

Because of that, the trainer gets a superiority complex. "You are my employee." Yet the student feels quite the opposite. The student signed on with the company, not the lease operator, so the student has the attitude, "You aren't my boss."

The best way to deal with all of this is to concentrate on your training. Make constant assessments of what you know and do not know. Write down questions as you go along and ask us in the trucker's forum, or search YouTube for some tutorials. 

Watch other trucks set up for backing and how far they swing when turning. Understand that you are "borrowing" the trainer's truck to do the job at hand. This is your time to make mistakes and learn from them. Hopefully, you will get great feedback on correcting them. 

Distance yourself emotionally from the trainer and the situation. If you allow this person to upset you, you just allowed him to derail you from your goal. You can put up with anything for a few weeks to a few months, and this career can last as many prosperous years as you allow it. The trainer does not need to be your friend. You may become friends at some point, but do not expect this to be a trip to Disney World. It's a job. If you don't learn all you can during your training it leads to making mistakes once you go solo. 

Training teaches you the essentials, but the real learning will happen once you go solo. That is when you refine your time management skills, establish a relationship with your dispatcher, and establish yourself among the ranks of the other drivers on your fleet. 

Understand that you do not need to know everything once training is finished. You have a support team of in-house personnel and other drivers to help guide you and listen to your frustrations. No lie, one time I called my dispatcher at 0300 yelling, "No one but you is answering the phone right now, so I need you to listen because I'm aggravated and I can't get this thing backed into this freaking dock to save my life!" 

As ridiculous as that sounds, he listened and tried to console me. Even though you are out here alone, help is always just a phone call away.

When in training, keep your eye on the goal of going solo. Also, realize you are not as perfect as you think you are. The trainer may not like you any more than you like him. He may think you are whiny, demanding, or that you're questioning his every decision because you think you know better. Analyze your own attitude and behaviors, and make adjustments when needed.

Above all else.... Just Get It Done!

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