One thing that didn’t change amidst all the turmoil in 2020: Truck drivers stayed in high demand.
The industry has been talking about a shortage of drivers for years, and that situation is still in evidence. While many industries were devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, our supply chains remained robust and reliable. In fact, the Dangerous Goods supply chain not only kept the world’s critical supplies of hazardous materials moving compliantly but also enjoyed its safest year in nearly a decade.
All of those factors combine to make this perhaps the best time ever to start a new career as a hazmat-certified truck driver.
A friend of ours has done just that. Here’s his story.
“Wow, I’m driving a truck.”
Until early 2020, Ken B.* had worked at office jobs his whole life. He was a 69-year-old suburbanite. When he was laid off early in the pandemic, he didn’t want to retire, but he knew he was ready for a different challenge.
(*Ken asked that his name and employer be kept confidential for this post.)
“I was looking for something I could do part-time if I wanted,” Ken says. “And I wanted to work outside an urban area, closer to where my wife and I have a small houseboat. I thought maybe I could drive a milk truck.”
As he looked into getting his commercial driver’s license (CDL), his cousin—who had worked in transport for many years—suggested he was crazy. “He said, ‘Who’s gonna hire a guy your age?’ But for the most part everyone else I talked to was encouraging.”
Despite the pandemic, he found a CDL school a few hours from home, and soon found himself immersed in learning to drive a truck. “It was four days a week, eight hours a day, for eight weeks. There were only five of us in the class and three instructors, so we had plenty of attention. But we weren’t in the classroom a lot—by the third day we were operating trucks in the yard. A week or so later we were on the road with an instructor.
“It was a little intimidating. I found myself thinking, ‘Wow, I’m driving a truck.’”
Another layer of complexity
Ken originally thought he’d just drive dry vans, but during his training he began to consider driving tankers instead.
“Why drive a tanker? There was just more to it—it’s a more challenging position that requires a little more skill,” he says. “You have to learn about unloading the product, instead of just driving to a dock and having someone else unload it.”
In addition to his CDL, Ken studied for and received three endorsements—for tankers, double and triple trailers, and hazmat. He quickly learned that tankers had different safety protocols than dry vans.
“With a standard truck you’re taught to swerve to avoid something that appears in the road, but you don’t swerve with a tanker truck,” he says. “Tipping is the last thing you want to do. Plus, the surge of liquid moving back and forth in a single bore tanker can add quite a lot of force depending on how fast you stop, so you always take curves 10 mph under what’s posted and keep the brakes on when you’re stopped.”
The hazmat endorsement added yet another layer of complexity. He says, “I always need to look at the characteristics of the commodity I’m transporting. How’s it going to go through the hose? What’s the freezing point? We usually do compressed air unloads, but if the chemical has a relatively low flashpoint we have to do a slower pump unload. Plus, I always have to wear full PPE—neoprene, boots, face shield, goggles, helmet.
“A lot of it is practical things—but there’s a lot of stuff in those books!”
“I’m introverted, and that helps.”
Driving long-haul tankers, so far, suits Ken’s personality just fine.
“It really is a major lifestyle change, but I don’t struggle with it,” he says. “I’m introverted, and that helps. What I really enjoy is when I get off the interstate onto state and county roads. It’s quiet and picturesque in those small towns, and that’s what appeals to me.
“Sometimes when I’m exposed to the elements, I ask myself, ‘What did I get myself into?’ But I like driving and seeing different parts of the country. I do feel this was a great decision.”
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