TYPES OF SCHOOLS: There are essentially three different types of truck driver training programs. The first is a private school, the second is a public institution and the third is a training program run by a motor carrier. That being said, there are typically significant differences that we'll explain below.
Private Schools: These schools are owned and operated by private, for-profit entities (such as a corporation or a partnership). Their business is to provide training for students interested in the trucking industry. The advantage to going to a private school is that they are there for one purpose only: to train drivers for America's trucking companies. They will only make money and be in business if they do this well. Private schools that have minimal or poor training standards will not be in business for very long. So their incentive is to make sure that students are satisfied. However, the flip side to this point is that as a for-profit school, the "bottom line" (financial condition) is important. Some private schools may try to cut costs and improve profit. This is usually done by cutting the quality of the training by skimping on skill training or by providing only the minimal amount of training necessary to get the student a CDL. The good news is that reputations form easily in the trucking school business. Schools that compromise safety or skill development for the sake of profit usually develop a poor reputation (See our discussion of CDL Mills). The other factor to consider is that private schools are usually required to be licensed and are regulated by most states. This means that there is an independent third party that enforces the laws and regulations that govern schools of this type in that state (see State Regulation below). If you have a complaint, you should let the state agency know. Let us know too!
Public Institutions: These are schools that are chartered, owned, operated and funded by a state or local government. They are frequently called "publicly funded" truck driving schools for this reason. Examples of these types of schools include local community colleges, vocational-technical schools (Vo-Techs) or state colleges. At publicly funded truck driving schools, the truck driving program is only one of many courses that are taught at the school. For example, a public school may offer computer training, welding, automotive technology, accounting, and many other courses in addition to truck driving. So a key question to answer for yourself is this: will you get the attention you need in this program or is truck driving just one of the 250 courses they offer? Often an advantage to a publicly funded school, however, is the cost. Since these schools are "publicly funded," the cost of programs may be subsidized in some manner by the state or local government. Costs are supposed to be lower as a result. But you need to compare prices (and the curriculum) to determine if this is the case. Sometimes these programs accept only a few students per class, so the charge per student remains high. Another issue is that public institutions are sometimes less flexible than private schools. If you want a more customized program or need flexibility with class hours, for example, a private school can be easier to work with. Public schools usually have a set number of classes per year, and that's it. If you miss the first class, you may have to wait 10 or 15 weeks to start. Whereas a private school is in a better position to alter the schedule to fit your needs. Lastly, public school programs are sometimes much longer than private schools. This can be good if the training is more thorough. But if you are out of work and want to start driving and earning a paycheck quickly, a longer program may not be the best answer for you.
Motor Carrier Training Watch out! This is training where -- literally -- "the rubber meets the road." These are truck driving "schools" that are being run for one reason only: the company doing the training wants as many drivers as possible, usually in as short a period as they can. The objective is simply to get drivers on the road hauling freight so the company can make more money. We do not recommend this type of training and warn that you be VERY careful if you choose this route. This type of training is not really a school at all. It is really an on the job training program. It is designed to give an individual minimal driving skills necessary to pass the CDL test. Then the driver can begin running freight with a "driver-trainer," who is usually just another driver with a little more experience.
CERTIFICATION: In the truck driving school business, Certification is different from state licensing. A certified truck driving school is one that has been "certified" to meet the trucking industry's training standard. Certification means that an independent third party (in other words someone unrelated to the school) has inspected the school and "certified" that the training should result in a graduate that has the basic skills to be an entry-level truck driver. It has nothing to do with state licensing or accreditation. Certification is becoming increasingly important to employers and state agencies that fund training for students.
There is only one organization that currently certifies truck driving courses: The Professional Truck Driver Institute (PTDI), located in Alexandria, Virginia. PTDI certification is voluntary. A school is not required to become certified. But a certified school is probably the best guarantee that a truck driving school maintains high truck driver training standards.
PTDI has developed three sets of strict standards that they apply to truck driving schools that want to be certified. PTDI will inspect the school and determine whether the standards are met. If they are met, the school's course is certified (schools are not certified) and the school can advertise that it teaches a course certified by PTDI. The three standards are for Skills, Knowledge and Curriculum. Skill standards are the basic skills an entry level driver should have (shifting, backing, vehicle inspection, etc.). As you might guess, knowledge standards describe the basic information a driver should know (how to plan a trip, licensing requirements, accident procedures and cargo documentation, for example). Finally, PTDI's curriculum standards identify the minimum course of instruction a truck driving school must present, including topics addressed and hours required for class, truck lab and driving. PTDI's standards for a school in this regard are very high. For example, PTDI requires that every student individually have at least 44 hours of driving instruction behind the wheel. That's a lot of driving time, and it cannot include any hours observing. (See Observation Time below).
There a number of advantages to PTDI certification. Students know that the training should be high quality, that they will receive a lot of driving experience and that the school has made the extra effort to demonstrate it is committed to the best training. Plus, the trucking industry has great respect for PTDI graduates because they know they are getting the best. They also know that their own company "finishing training" training costs will be lower because the student is well trained already. So, students that graduate from a top quality program benefit in the wallet as well because they require less training by the employer. Therefore they can drive solo sooner and earn more money faster. New drivers that attend short programs or get inadequate training can get stuck in the carrier's training program at a low weekly pay rate for a long time. We think PTDI sets a great standard that benefits everyone!
Even if a school is not certified, you can ask one important question to see if they adhere to higher standards: exactly how many hours of actual driving is provided to every student? Remember that PTDI requires 44 hours for every student. And that does not mean you're simply "in the truck" for 44 hours. Some schools place 3-5 students in the truck at the same time for full day drives and simply rotate the students into the driver's seat for one or two hours; they may call all this time "behind the wheel." PTDI requires 44 hours of actual driving. So make the school tell you the specific number of hours you will be driving, and ask them to show you their guaranteed driving time in writing. Don't accept answers like "we give you as much time as you need". A good school will identify driving hours in their catalog or informational brochure. After all, you are attending a truck driving school -- driving is the basic skill and you should expect a lot of practice driving!