Truck driver brings delivery to construction site with worker

Exploring Truck Driver Opportunities: Mapping Out Your Career

With the trucking and transportation industry continuously growing, there’s never been a better time to start a career as a truck driver. This sector not only promises job stability and competitive pay, but also opens doors to various roles that can suit different interests and skills over time. There are always opportunities to grow, so you’ll never be stuck in the same position forever (unless that’s what you want!).

In this article, we’ll outline potential career paths to help you understand the long-term potential and variety this industry offers.

An infographic showing possible career journeys. The journey starts with entry-level truck driver, which branches to experienced driver, then specialized driver. After specialized driver, there are two career path options: becoming an instructor/trainer or an owner-operator. There is nothing under instructor/trainer. Under owner-operator, there is a potential next step for fleet manager/supervisor. Under fleet manager/supervisor, there is a potential next step in logistics and planning.

Level 1: Entry-Level Truck Driver

Truck driver sitting in cabin giving thumbs-up

If you are working with no prior experience in the trucking industry, you’ll start here as an entry-level truck driver.

In an entry-level truck driving job, you’ll typically drive smaller trucks with shorter routes, including local deliveries or regional routes that allow you to return home more frequently.

Other job responsibilities may include:

  • Loading & Unloading Cargo
  • Maintaining Accurate Logs & Records
  • Performing Routine Vehicle Maintenance Checks

In this role, your primary goal is accumulating driving experience and learning to handle different road conditions and logistical challenges. New drivers typically spend around two years in an entry-level position before advancing to more complex and higher-paying roles. But, let it be said—your salary will increase as you gain more experience. You can read this blog for more information on what to expect during your first year as a truck driver.

Becoming an Entry-Level Driver

Before becoming a truck driver, you must earn a commercial driver’s license (CDL), which comes with a few requirements.

First is age—you need to be at least 18 years old for intrastate travel and 21 years old for interstate trucking. Once you meet the age requirements, you have to:

  • Have a driver’s license in good standing (clean driving record).
  • Provide proof of residency.
  • Pass the DOT physical exam.
  • Pass a drug and alcohol test.
  • Apply for a CDL program.
  • Pass knowledge and road skills tests to earn your CDL at least 14 days after you’ve earned your permit.

For more information on becoming an entry-level truck driver, please read this article, which outlines basic requirements and factors that could prevent you from becoming one.

Next Step: Experienced Truck Driver

Level 2: Experienced Truck Driver

A man in a bright yellow vest is using a dolly to load a large, wooden box into a truck trailer.

The next logical step for you is to operate larger vehicles and take on longer or more complex routes, possibly including interstate travel, depending on your age. You may also start transporting a wider variety of cargo, which requires understanding different loading and securing techniques. You’ll retain some of the same responsibilities, like maintaining accurate logs and records, but you may also begin communicating with clients or receivers.

While in this position, your goals should be to build a track record of safety, reliability, and efficiency, enhance your problem-solving skills as you tackle more challenging routes, and stay up-to-date with industry changes and new regulations.

You can spend as long as you like in this role—most drivers will spend two to five years in this type of position before moving on to a more specialized role.

How to Get to This Level

  • Have at least two years of solid OTR driving experience.
  • Have a history of safe driving practices.
  • Demonstrating improvement in driving and operational skills, often through ongoing training or certifications.
  • Earning additional endorsements so you can start hauling specialized cargo like hazardous materials.

Next Step: Specialized Truck Driver

Level 3: Specialized Truck Driver

A gasoline tanker being driven on an empty highway. The sun is setting in the distance.

After gaining experience, you may want to develop a specialty, whether that’s driving tank vehicles or flatbeds or transporting special goods like hazardous materials, oversized loads, or temperature-sensitive materials.

In a specialty role, you must adhere to specific regulations and procedures related to your cargo type, such as Hazmat rules or oversized load permits, and implement and follow advanced safety measures.

Becoming a specialized truck driver is a good next step because it builds deep knowledge and skills in specific areas and establishes your knowledge and reliability, which can eventually help you should you become an independent contractor or someone responsible for training or supervising other drivers who may or may not hold endorsements.

How to Get to This Level

  • Have several years of solid truck driving experience and a history of safe driving—you need to show experience handling complex routes and showcase exceptional driving skills, which are both required for a specialty role.
  • Obtain specific endorsements on your CDL, such as Hazmat (H), Tank Vehicle (N), or X (combination of hazardous materials and tank).
  • Complete training courses specific to your chosen area, such as safety courses for hazardous materials or securement techniques for flatbed loads.

Next Steps: Owner-Operator OR Instructor/Trainer

Career Path/Potential Endpoint: Owner-Operator/Independent Contractor

Truck driver holding clipboard inspecting safety vehicle m

After being a specialized driver for a few years, you may decide to become an owner-operator, which involves either purchasing or leasing a commercial vehicle and serving as a contractor for another business.

In this role, you take on most of the financial risk and handle the business aspects of trucking, including acquiring clients, setting rates, maintaining records, ensuring full compliance with transportation regulations, and finding and scheduling your loads unless you’re leased to a carrier that provides dispatch services.

Operating your own trucking business will help you improve your decision-making strategies, refine your customer service and management skills, and increase your ability to network to build contacts.

Being an owner-operator can be a long-term career choice—how long you are in this role depends on your personal business goals, market conditions, and individual preferences.

And, keep in mind—you don’t need to ever get to this level. If you have no interest in business management, you may want to skip to the next level: becoming a trainer or instructor.

How to Get to Here

  • Have extensive industry experience—no one will want to hire someone brand-new to the industry. You need to showcase that you’re reliable.
  • Seek mentorship opportunities within your company. Experienced drivers or owner-operators can provide valuable insights into the business side of trucking.
  • Learn business management so you can gain a basic understanding of budgeting, invoicing, and cost management.
  • Show initiative at your existing company by asking for more responsibilities that go beyond driving. This could involve helping with logistics planning, dispatching, or customer service.
  • Learn how to network within your company. Make connections with dispatchers, managers, and other drivers.
  • Have sufficient funds or financing options to purchase or lease a truck and cover initial business costs.
  • Obtain the necessary insurance coverage and permits for operating a trucking business.

Next Opportunity: Fleet Manager/Supervisor

Career Path/Potential Endpoint: Truck Driving Trainer/Instructor

An instructor holds a sign with a red upside down triangle (sign for emergency) to a group of students who sit at desks with laptops.

If business management isn’t in the cards for you, you could try becoming a trainer or instructor. As a truck driving trainer, you’ll be responsible for teaching new drivers the skills needed to advance their career in trucking, creating or updating training materials and curricula, assessing the progress and skills of trainees and providing feedback, and staying updated on the latest trends and regulations to ensure you’re teaching students best practices.

How to Get to Here

  • Have extensive driving experience and a consistently clean safety record, typically several years, to showcase your dedication to safety and efficiency.
  • Have strong communication skills and the ability to teach complex concepts and provide constructive feedback.
  • Take courses or earn certifications related to adult education—this will make you more marketable for this type of position.
  • Have a ton of patience—teaching is not easy. You need to be able to effectively help students at varying skill levels and backgrounds.
  • Understand how to develop and implement effective teaching strategies.

Career Path/Potential Endpoint: Fleet Management or Supervisor Role

A man folds his arms and stares from his office out of a window, where there are several parked semi-trucks

If you’re not interested in teaching or being a mentor, the next possible step for you could be a fleet manager or supervisor, where you’ll manage the day-to-day operations of a fleet of trucks, including scheduling, routing, and ensuring timely deliveries. Other responsibilities include:

  • Ensuring vehicles are properly maintained and compliant with safety regulations
  • Supervising a team of drivers, including hiring, training, performance monitoring, and addressing any disciplinary issues
  • Overseeing budgetary aspects, including fuel costs and maintenance expenses
  • Addressing and resolving any logistical challenges or issues that arise within the fleet operations
  • Implementing and overseeing safety programs and compliance with transportation regulations

Working as an owner-operator will help you gain most of these skills. However, the important thing to remember about this position is that you’ll be primarily behind the scenes and not spending time on the road. If this doesn’t sound ideal for you, you may find more enjoyment in an owner-operator position. This is a good choice if you want to be a leader and do more strategic planning.

How to Get to Here

  • Have extensive experience in the trucking industry as a driver and owner-operator.
  • Have strong leadership, people management, and communication skills.
  • Have a basic understanding of business operations, logistics, and supply chain management.
  • Have the ability to quickly resolve issues and make decisions that impact fleet and deliveries.
  • While not required, a degree or certification in logistics/transportation management or business administration can make you more marketable to future employers.
  • Have some familiarity with fleet management software and other technologies.

Next Opportunity: Logistics & Planning

Career Path/Potential Endpoint: Transportation Logistics & Planning

A man and woman wearing similar clothes are in a warehouse, smiling, and looking at a computer screen.

After fleet management, you may want to pursue a full-time role in transportation logistics and planning. In this type of role, you’ll develop efficient routes and load schedules for transportation operations, considering factors like delivery times, driver availability, and cost efficiency, oversee and coordinate different stages of the supply chain, collaborate with vendors, analyze transportation data, and address logistical challenges.

This career path will be excellent for you if you enjoy analyzing data and making data-driven decisions.

How to Get to Here

  • Have extensive experience in the trucking and transportation industry as a driver and manager or supervisor.
  • Earn a degree in logistics, supply chain management, business administration, or other related field.
  • Have strong analytical skills to interpret data and make strategic decisions based on data effectively.
  • Be familiar with transportation management systems and other logistics software.
  • Have solid problem-solving skills to ensure you can take on logistical challenges effectively.
  • Have strong communication and negotiation skills for coordinating with multiple stakeholders.

Choosing the Right Career Path

There are many potential pathways you could choose, and as someone new to the industry, that thought may be overwhelming.

Choosing the right pathway boils down to three questions:

  1. Do you have a salary goal?
  2. What level of responsibility do you want to have?
  3. Which role sounds more fulfilling to you?

If you like to lead or be a mentor, a trainer/instructor or fleet management role could be the end of the road for you (not that that’s bad). Likewise, if you enjoy time on the road, maybe your stop is becoming an owner-operator or just staying on as a specialized driver.

And when you’re first starting, you may not know what you want. As you gain more experience, think about what specific roles and responsibilities feel more fulfilling. If you went above and beyond your standard driving role and asked to help with logistics or dispatching, did any additional responsibilities make you happier? If you find that you enjoy logistics, aim high and plan to work in a transportation logistics and planning role in the near future. If you thought it was too much responsibility, stay on your current path. It all comes down to you and how you feel.

Start Your Career at TSI

At TSI, we know that the trucking and transportation industry is fulfilling—we’ve been in this sector for over four decades. Although our primary responsibility is providing reliable freight services to automotive companies in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, our real passion is helping people start a career in this industry.

We’ve developed a six-week hands-on training course that covers pre-trip inspection, trip planning, customer relations, communication, defensive driving, and more for individuals interested in becoming entry-level truck drivers.

Please visit our website to learn more about this course (or sign up) or browse our blog for more tips and advice.