In fifty years I’ve gone through all kinds of training. I’ve also had the opportunity to deliver training in many areas and for many reasons. In this time, I’ve learned there are things that work, and things that don’t. I haven’t spent a lot of time involved in CDL training, but I have gone through it, and I have spent some effort in understanding the concepts involved both from a training and an operational perspective. I can’t speak for or to all training methods and sources out there, but I can speak to what I went through. I know it is one of the more prevalent training models out there, so I believe my analysis probably has wide application.
The model used where I did my training was very straight forward. It is a model used around the nation, and the world, and not just for CDL training either. Unfortunately, it is the type of training most used in most places. This includes the schools our kids go to, but that’s another story all together. The premise of the training is simply this: You’re going to take a test when this is over. Here’s what you need to know to pass the test. While it is obviously possible to succeed with this model, it is hardly the best way to produce the desired results. Do we want to develop a person who can pass a test, or do we want to develop a professional truck driver? If the answer to that questions is not obvious to you, you might want to consider another line of work.
From the standpoint of public safety, business practices, and yes, overbearing government compliance requirements, doing a half-assed job training driver recruits is simply not acceptable. Unfortunately, the way many of us are doing it now is, I’m sorry to say, half-assed.
The standard model is a variation on the two week course. First week, you go through classroom instruction where you are prepared to take the written test to get your permit. The second week is spent working on the skills test maneuvers, and actually driving the truck on the street. Again, the focus of all this training is to get you to pass the test. When the training is done, you’ll either go to the DMV and take the driving test with their personnel, and if you pass, you get your license. Or you’ll take a test with an instructor at the school, then go to your company and take another test with their personnel. If you pass both tests, you get your license. I did the latter, and I will admit to you right now, I did not pass the second test, and did not receive my CDL. The reasons I failed, and there is more than one, will, I believe, help me show how to build a successful training curriculum for CDL training, and how not to.
The first thing I want to talk about is personnel. In particular, truck driving instructors. Let me say at the outset that just because someone has been a successful truck driver for twenty years does not mean he’ll make a good or effective instructor. In fact, if I had been running the school I went to, I can tell you I would not have hired any of the instructors that were there, and even if I had, they wouldn’t have lasted very long. Every single one of them was an excellent and professional truck driver, but not a single one of them was even remotely competent as an instructor. Sorry, but that’s a fact for which there is no refutation. Anyone with professional experience in training or education of any type would most likely agree with me.
It has to do with the problem I mentioned before; teaching to the test. The first week of training, the classroom portion, should be conducted by professional instructors that are not truck drivers. The material has to be presented in a dispassionate manner. I tell my kids when they go to school, don’t worry about the grade, just work on learning the material. The grade will take care of itself. It’s not possible to do this when the teacher allows their personal biases into the classroom. In short, do not teach to the test, teach to the material. If you do that, the test will take care of itself.
The best approach is to develop a curriculum based on the regulations and knowledge required to be a good truck driver, not based on the content of the test. In reality, the proper curriculum would probably require six hours a day for two weeks to complete. This would not only produce a higher percentage of students passing the written test the first time, but it would also better prepare them for the driving portion of the training, and make them better drivers in the long run.
The driving portion of the training also leaves a lot to be desired. The temperament and approach of the instructors is critical. Yes, they do have to be experienced professional truck drivers, but that alone is not enough. They also have to have exceptional observation and communication skills as well. Instructor input has to be simple, clear and unambiguous. When I was in the truck with the instructor, it was none of those things. Everyone is not the same. If the instructor does not understand this, failure is inevitable.
Both aspects, classroom and road, are critical, but they must be separated completely from one another. I know this seems counter-intuitive to a lot of people, but it is the best way to implement a course for operating a heavy truck in the current regulatory and business environment. Two separate and distinct curriculums are needed, one for classroom, one for on the road. So how should this training proceed? First, start with the classroom work leading to the written test.
Classroom based instruction should take place entirely in the classroom. I know this seems almost redundant, but you’d be surprised at how many might not understand this. Lessons should be based on all applicable rules and regulations. This includes state and federal traffic and safety rules, equipment standards, scales and inspections, and any required endorsements. Lessons should not be based on the content of the written test. They should be designed to impart knowledge, not test preparation. As I stated earlier, if you focus on learning the material, the test will take care of itself.
While the test is not the focus of the process, it can be used to move the process forward. Sample test are available, and those questions should be used, in conjunction with other, deeper questions, throughout the training process to help students isolate and focus on problem areas, and help instructors gauge the effectiveness of their instruction. In the end, the final test should be written to a much higher standard than the written CDL test from the DMV. In fact, anyone passing the final test of their training should be able to pass the DMV test without any trouble. Complete preparation is the key to success not only on the DMV test, but down the road as well, and that’s true both literally and figuratively.
The driving portion of the training is, obviously, the most critical part. A student may know everything in theory and have all the rules and regulations down pat, but it means nothing if he can’t drive the truck! Most schools these days put you in a tractor trailer right away. I can tell you from experience that this is not always going to have the desired results. It’s better to go with a training model that has a much higher possibility of success with each student regardless of their experience or how they learn things. From my perspective, this amounts to nothing more than simple common sense: First things first. Allow the students some time driving the truck bobtail. Even a couple of hours of this will prevent a lot of problems. Their shifting will improve more rapidly, and they’ll be much better able to handle the truck when you do finally put 53 feet of liability behind them.
My training was very interesting. It taught me some “how not tos” about truck driver training, and it taught me some things about myself as well. The first day of actually driving the truck started with skills practice. Backing the truck, no problem. Ally dock, no problem. Parallel parking, no problem. Right turn, well, I had a problem with that the fist time, but only because I misinterpreted where one of the cones was placed. I didn’t have a problem with it after that. Later that day, we actually drove the truck on the road.
The fist time on the road with also uneventful. Although I had never driven a big-rig before, I still remembered my double-clutching from my army days and that old deuce-and-a-half. Once I got the shifting pattern down, and got used to the high-low range switch, it was no problem. Turning, no problem. Braking, no problem. Downshifting, I had a bit of a problem at first with the timing, but worked that out fairly quickly. So, the first day went pretty well. I started out confidently and it showed. Unfortunately, every time I drove the truck after that it got worse than the last time. The reason is very simple, the instructor, and the training methods used, were static. Instead of building on my early success, he kept trying to get me to do it exactly how he does it. This is where a real professional instructor becomes critical. What that instructor did sapped my confidence, and everything started to fall apart.
Driving a truck is essentially, much like driving anything else, based on what you feel. Your thought processes provide context, but your physical sensation and instincts are what you use when driving a truck. My right turns were fine, at least for a new driver, but the instructor felt he had to tell me I was too far out every single time. I’m still not sure what he was trying to accomplish, but I am sure it was completely unnecessary, and worse, detrimental to my state of mind. He also kept telling me I was going to far out when making those turns. Again, I went out as far as I felt I needed to go. When I looked at the left mirror to check the curb clearance, it was usually a foot or two. I’m not sure how this is a problem, no one was going to be turning right in there. The bottom line is, as long as I was just using my physical sensation and instincts I knew what I was doing, and what the truck was doing. As soon as he started making me think about every little thing, I tried to apply what he was telling me even if it contradicted what the truck felt like at the time. Confusion and failure at this point was inevitable.
By the time I got to the employers driving test I was so screwed up it’s a miracle I got through it alive. The fist test, I did something I’d never done previously. I rode the curb with the trailer duals on a right turn. Not much mind you, didn’t even go over, but it’s an automatic fail never-the-less. The second time I did the same thing, only this time it was worse. This time, it was on a left turn! It wasn’t a curb, it was a center median on a major street. I cut the turn to soon and nearly plastered the trailer into a signpost. The thing that really got me was when the instructor started yelling “watch your trailer!” My immediate reply was almost, “no shit, what do you think I’m doing,” but I caught myself, and just replied, “where the hell is the trailer.” In hindsight, that might not have been a better thing to say. It got me tossed out of the program. I didn’t get my CDL, and the company now thinks I’m a nut case.
The truth of that situation is not at all what they though it was. First, if I hadn’t realized the mistake and actually been watching the trailer when he sounded off, I would have already plastered that sign post. Second, he assumed my mistake was based on my lack of understanding of the nature of the 53ft trailer behind me. What it really was was the confusion that came from a number of problems I had to deal with that should never have been a factor to begin with.
First, shifting. The first day driving the truck I had very little problems with the shifting. By the time I took that second test I kept getting stuck out of gear as I approached those turns. Now, suddenly, I have another problem to deal with as the turn approaches. If they had left me well enough alone about the shifting to begin with, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Even more helpful, would have been a couple of hours in the truck bobtail so I could focus on the shifting without worrying about 53 feet of liability behind me. Second, the turns. I never had any problem with the turns until it was decided that every single one of them required some cryptic comment. I’m still not sure what half the crap that instructor said to me was supposed to mean. At the end of the day, if they’d just let me do what I started out doing, which was just relax and drive the truck, I’d be a professional truck driver today.
That was some months ago. That permit is still valid, and I intend to follow through and get my CDL. It’s just a matter of getting my hands on a truck and a licensed driver for a day or two. That’s expensive, but I should be able to do it. Meanwhile, I’m working on learning all I can about the industry. There are a lot of problems in this industry, not the least of which are caused by some form of government intervention of one kind or another. Still, there are other problems as well. Many of those problems have to do with the industry’s approach to training, and what constitutes a qualified driver. Another is the insistence on recruiting from the bottom of the gene pool. During my time in that program I met at least a dozen active drivers who had no business being anywhere near anything that weighs 80,000 lbs and goes 65 mph. True, it’s not rocket science, but it does require some common sense.
There is a rule of business I learned long ago, and my experience with this trucking company drove that point home to me. Never let your business grow so fast that you out strip your ability to find good people to work for you. If you find yourself having to hire people who you really would rather not, you need to back up and reassess your growth rate. If you want to offer training to drivers, especially if you are a larger company, develop your own training system and do it yourself. This way you can take the time to do it right, and take a more realistic approach to quality control. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be a lot better than it is now in a lot of places.