So you’re thinking about becoming a truck driver. Congrats on a great decision—you are about to embark on a great adventure, and you are going to get paid handsomely to do it. Few other careers offer such a fast track into financial viability coupled with long-term job security and satisfaction.
Not everyone is cut out for life on the road, but if you are, this could be the chance you’ve been waiting for.
Still, you may be wondering whether truck driving really lives up to all the hype. It is a taxing job, one which will frequently push you to the limits of your endurance. Will you earn enough for all that hard work to be worth it?
We are going to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about how much you can earn as a truck driver. By the time you’ve finished reading, you will have a realistic idea what you can expect to make in your first year, and how your salary can grow as your journey continues to unfold.
You will also know exactly which opportunities to pursue to ensure that you earn the highest possible income now and over the years to come.
Here Is What Truck Drivers Make on Average
First of all, truck driver salaries vary a lot—as in a lot.
As of the time of this writing (2015), Glassdoor.com reports that salaries start out around $28,000 per year and max out around $65,000 per year, with the national average being $43,464.
The numbers reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) are similar. The median pay in 2016 was $41,340, which equates to $19.87 per hour.
Indeed.com provides a good sample of salaries for all experience levels and are the source we use most frequently here at TDS.
What we can note from the company’s website is the following:
- Student truck drivers earn $41,000 a year on average.
- CDL truck drivers can expect to earn $66,000 a year on average.
- OTR CDL truck drivers earn the most, with salaries averaging $82,000 a year.
- Team truck drivers earn an average of $71,000 each per year.
- The average owner operator can earn $270,000 year, but they are responsible for all of their truck repairs and maintenance, which is very costly.
This number is closest to our own internal research but the key take way is that the pay range varies widely. It also worth noting that our aggregate amounts are quite different from what most truck driving companies like Yellow Freight publish for their pay rates. Take a big picture view of these numbers and use all data points to get a complete idea of the pay range.
When you move beyond your initial year, there are job opportunities in the field however which pay even more than that—like team truck driving (around $71,000 per year) and the role of owner operator (as much as $270,000 per year).
Factors That Can Impact Your Truck Driving Income
Why do pay rates vary so much?
The reason is that they are influenced by an array of different factors, including:
- Mileage: If you are willing to drive long distances, you can typically earn more money. Assignments with smaller driving distances are often more convenient, but they tend to result in lower pay as well.
- Education and licensing: Drivers with a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) earn more money than those without one.
- Location: This does not have a huge impact, but there are some regions where you might earn more.
- Experience: The turnover rate in the truck driving industry is huge. Most people simply do not have the endurance for this job, and they quit within a short span of time. So if you stick around for years and prove yourself, you can command a more competitive salary.
- Bonuses: Different companies offer different bonuses and benefits. These can add to your pay.
- Specific Role: There are so many different types of truck driving jobs out there! Some of them pay significantly more than others. Examples would be team truck driving or specialized hazmat hauling.
I am going to get into each of these in detail below. First things first, though—if you do not have your CDL, you probably are wondering how much money you are going to sink into your training and licensing before you can start earning.
What Will You Be Investing in Your Education?
If you want to become a truck driver, you will need to go to truck driving school. Truck driving schools generally run between $3,000-$7,000 if the school is independently owned.
Don’t have that kind of money? Don’t panic—a lot of new truck drivers have very little (if anything) to invest in their educations. Because truck driving educational requirements are so minimal and you can get on the road fast, this is a job that attracts a lot of low income candidates.
Those who cannot afford to pay $3,000-$7,000 for independent truck driving school have the option of entering into a company-sponsored truck driving school instead.
This is of course not a no-strings-attached freebie. Upon graduating from the program, you will need to work for the company that sponsored your training, usually for about a year. During this year, you get paid, but part of your salary goes toward repaying the cost of your education.
Those who are earning near the bottom of the bracket in their first year as truck drivers (around $28,000 per year) are often drivers who attended a company-sponsored school.
But think about how awesome this opportunity is. Yes, you will hardly be making a killing that first year, but you will be making a living. How many other high-paying professions can you break into without any upfront education costs? How many other worthwhile fields can you enter after just a few weeks of training? So yeah—that first year is going to be pretty rough! But it is also worth it.
CDL vs. non-CDL Income
Yes, you need a CDL. You may be tempted to skip out of licensing, but that is a really bad idea for multiple reasons.
Consider that CDL truck drivers make an average of $62,752 per year according to Indeed.com. The national average for truck drivers everywhere that I cited earlier was $43,464. Clearly having a CDL makes a big difference in your pay.
Also, you are not supposed to legally be driving trucks at all without a CDL—you can get a fine for it. And most reputable companies are not going to hire you without one for exactly that reason.
Plus, don’t forget that getting your CDL is not all that difficult or expensive. You just need to head to truck driving school, and as already mentioned, that is quite reasonably priced, and you do not necessarily even need to pay anything upfront. So definitely get your CDL!
Pay Per Mile Vs. Pay Per Hour?
Another issue to consider when it comes to getting paid as a truck driver is that some companies pay per mile while others pay per hour. Pay per hour opportunities are common with companies like UPS and Fedex as well as local distribution outfits. Freight drivers on the other hand are often paid per mile.
Note that in a way, a freight driver is almost always at work. Even when you are parked, you will still be away from home. You usually will only be home for a day or two each week (though there are some exceptions).
Generally speaking, you can make more money if you take a pay per mile job than a pay per hour job—especially if you are good at what you do. Think about it. If you are paid just 30 cents per mile and you manage to drive 700 miles per day (pretty typical), you could get $210 for that day of work!
Bonuses and Benefits
Truck drivers often receive great benefits as well as other bonuses, all of which serve to enhance their earnings. Here are some examples of bonuses and benefits you might receive:
- Performance bonuses if you meet certain thresholds. This could for example be as much as five cents per mile, paid out on a monthly or quarterly basis.
- Bonuses for being a fuel-efficient driver.
- Bonuses for proving that you are driving safely.
- Bonuses for getting a clean bill of health on your DOT inspections.
- Hiring bonuses. Sometimes sign-on bonuses are as much as $6,000 (enough to offset the costs you might have paid for an independent trucking school).
- Referral bonuses. These could be a couple thousand dollars per hire. Because there is such high turnover in the field, companies always are in need of new drivers.
- Compensation for time you have been forced to spend waiting because of delays. This is referred to as “layover pay.”
- Insurance for medical and sometimes vision and/or dental. Some companies may also provide life insurance packages.
- Paid time off for vacation as well as sick leave.
- 401k plans for retirement.
Plus, the ultimate value of a career in truck driving goes far beyond the salary, bonuses and monetary benefits. There are intangible benefits as well…
Nothing can replace the sense of freedom you get when you are cruising down the highway at 60 miles per hour without a boss constantly hawking over your shoulder. This is a career where you are trusted to get the job done—it’s just you and the road out there!
Your First Year as a Truck Driver: What to Expect
So now that you’ve got some overarching perspective on what you can earn as a truck driver and what impacts your earnings, what can you expect to make in your first year?
There is no simple answer to this question, so let’s look at a variety of situations and consider info from a few sources.
The BLS Reports …
According to the BLS, the bottom 10% of truck drivers earned less than $26,920 in 2016.
It is reasonable to expect that a fair number of entry-level drivers fall into this bracket. There probably are also some part-timers in here as well as others who may make less because of other factors.
SimplyHired Reports …
On SimplyHired, you can browse through entry level truck driver jobs. Do so, and you will get a pretty good feel for what is out there—and some of it may surprise you. Many of these companies are paying upwards of $35,000 per year.
Which Trucking Companies Offer The Best Pay For New Drivers?
If you are just starting out, we recommend you consider Swift Transportation. This company runs a trucking school. Your education is free upfront, and then you spend 26 months at a reduced salary paying back the costs.
This is one of the highest paying opportunities of its kind for new drivers. Drivers working for Swift make $39,878 per year on average. You can view their cost per mile (CPM) pay chart here.
This company reimburses drivers up to $4,000 if they have a CDL. If you do not, the company is willing to pay the cost of your tuition in exchange for work.
When you are first getting started with an entry-level position with Con-Way Freight, you will be classified as a student driver. Here is what student drivers earn with Con-Way:
- $.26 per mile up to 10,000 miles.
- $.31 per mile if you drive between 10,001 and 59,999 miles.
- $.33 per mile if you drive between 60,000 and 89,999 miles.
- $.35 per mile if you drive between 90,000 miles and 119,999 miles.
- $.38 per mile for all drivers that have driven 120,000 miles to 124,999 miles.
Eventually you could make up to $.44 per mile with bonuses.
This is another great company to consider if you want to earn good money as an entry level truck driver. PayScale.com reports that you could make as much as $50,000 per year as a starting driver for J.B. Hunt.
Another company which is often recommended to new drivers by experienced truckers is TMC. Glassdoor.com reports that on average, drivers at TMC earn $64,713 per year. At the lower end, the starting salary is around $44,000 per year, so that is likely what you could expect at the entry level.
Along with TMC, Crete Carrier is another company recommended by experienced truck drivers to industry newcomers. Crete Carrier does pay less than TMC according to Glassdoor.com, which reports that the starting salary is around $37,000 per year, and the average salary is about $56,440 per year.
Here is Some Information from Actual Truck Drivers …
This is an interesting thread worth checking out on the topic of first year truck driving salary figures.
According to the respondents, pay can vary quite widely, ranging anywhere from around $300 per week to around $1,000 per week. At the lower end, that actually could mean making as little as $15,600. At the upper end, it could mean as much as $52,000 starting out. Note that this does not even include benefits and bonuses.
Don’t feel you have to go with the first job that comes your way out of trucking school. There is a lot of demand, and if you shop around, you could find a far better offer somewhere unexpected.
What Will You Make in Year Two?
It’s tough to find information on what you can expect to make in your second year as a truck driver, but this post sheds some light.
The author of the post reports that every year he remains with the company, he will get a raise of 1 CPM, equating to around $1,000 more per year. Obviously this is not a massive increase, but it is not bad either. And that is assuming that he stays in the same position.
This gives you an idea of not just what you could make in your second year, but also how your income could grow the longer you stay in trucking, even without any major changes in what you do.
As your career unfolds, you will find that there are opportunities to earn more. While you can earn gradual raises working the same routes in the same role, you may be able to transition into other positions which pay your more money.
Which Regions Pay The Most To Truck Drivers?
First of all, are there locations where you can earn more as a truck driver?
For the most part, you will find little variation in salaries from one state to the next after different costs of living are accounted for. That said, you will find some of the highest wages in the following states:
- North Dakota
- New York
- New Jersey
Should You Work for a Large or Small Trucking Company?
In terms of pay, you will find a wider range of salaries available at large companies than at small ones:
- Truckers who work at smaller companies report CPMs ranging from $0.35 – $0.50.
- Truckers who work at larger companies report CPMs ranging between $0.23 – $0.60.
That means that you could potentially earn more or less at a large company, depending on your level of experience and the role you choose.
You should consider other factors as well. If you choose to work at a small trucking company, you will probably enjoy a more personal connection to your coworkers and managers. You also might have a more flexible job, and more of a chance to demonstrate leadership.
But a lot of small companies hire truckers as contractors rather than employees—and this can lead to quite a few hassles with taxes, benefits and other matters, and may ultimately eat into your earnings.
As to larger companies, you may have a wider range of jobs to choose from, and might eventually be able to become a manager. Relocation opportunities are better, and you are more likely to be a full employee with benefits. The downside is that many companies do not pay well and expect high turnover, so may value their employees less.
Which Trucker Jobs Pay Best?
If you do want to advance your career, the following trucking jobs are some of the highest paying out there:
- Solo OTR Driver: Earnings can vary quite a bit for this job, but the average is around $40,000-$45,000 in the first year.
- Dedicated Driver: This is a driver who works for a specific company (like a department store), moving only that company’s merchandise. Routes may be identical for every trip. These drivers may earn as much as $65,000.
- Trainer: If you eventually start training other truck drivers, you could make up to $80,000 per year.
- Specialized Driver: There are a number of jobs under this umbrella. As a line haul driver, you could make $80,000 per year. Other high-paying specialized jobs include hazmat driving, tank driving, oversized load driving, and ice road trucking. Believe it or not, an ice road trucking owner-operator can earn as much as $250,000 per year, and that is working part-time only. All of these jobs involve extra risk, but the compensation can be amazing.
- Team OTR Driver: Team driving is one of the most exciting opportunities in the trucking industry. As a team driver, you work in tandem with another driver, which allows you to switch back and forth with driving and resting. This makes it possible to cover a much larger distance in a shorter time. Both of you receive the compensation for the total mileage, not just the part you drove. That means you could make anywhere from $100,000-$150,000 per year!
- Owner-Operator: Want to run your own trucking business, be it just you, several other drivers, or a whole huge fleet of trucks? You could earn more than $100,000 per year in this role.
Keep in mind you should not attempt to start out as an owner-operator. It may be tempting, but it will cause you a lot of hassles as a beginner. You need to get experience first. Likewise, know that jobs like team driving are not available to newbies either. You have to earn those opportunities by proving yourself reliable.
Conclusion: You Will Probably Make $40,000+ as a Truck Driver, But You May Ultimately Make More than $100,000 Per Year
So how much do truck drivers actually make?
You may very well make more than $35,000 your first year. A couple years in, you will probably make more than $40,000, and eventually you could even earn six figures a year.
So what are you waiting for?
It’s time to hit the road—your new career is waiting for you! Truckers can make a lot of money per year depending on what company they work for. When you first start in the industry, you’ll be making less than your peers that have years of experience. But, the first year truck driver salary is respectable, and you move quickly up through the company and start earning more money usually in six months. Submit your CDL training search below to get in touch with your local truck driving school!