How to become an OTR driver

Written by Kate Lopaze

When you think of the phrase “truck driver,” you’re probably envisioning an over-the-road (OTR) truck driver: someone who drives a big rig long distances to deliver a load of freight. As opposed to delivery drivers, who typically have set local routes, OTR truckers can transport goods across the county, state, or even country. There’s something very appealing and old-school about the idea of hitting the open road—is it the right option for you?

What does an OTR trucker do?

OTR trucking (also known as long-haul trucking) is a type of driving that involves using large tractor-trailer trucks to haul freight of all kinds (including heavy loads of goods, machinery, or other equipment) long distances. Routes are typically across state lines, and may include parts of the United States and Canada—basically anywhere accessible by main roads and highways.

This is definitely not your typical 9-to-5 job. These drivers work on demanding schedules and can be away from home for weeks at a time. These schedules may require driving nights, weekends, or holidays to meet unforgiving deadlines. It can also be a very solitary job, with drivers often traveling alone on long trips.

What skills does an OTR trucker have?

OTR truckers are masters of logistics and need to have a number of skills ready to go, on the road or not.

Driving Skills: This may seem like a no-brainer, but OTR drivers require some next-level driving skills. Drivers should drive with an eye on safety and their freight at all times. And in addition to a commercial driver’s license (CDL), a clean driving record is essential for scoring a job in OTR trucking.

Mechanical Skills: Out on the road, you may need to be your own mechanic, if something happens out of AAA range or a place where the nearest mechanic is miles away. OTR drivers should have a solid base set of mechanical skills to be able to troubleshoot minor mechanical difficulties along the way.

Time Management Skills: Nothing drives (pun mostly intended) a trucker’s world more than the delivery schedule. Truckers need to be able to manage their time independently and efficiently to make sure they’re delivering their freight on schedule.

Self-Starter Skills: Out on the road, you won’t have a boss looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re doing everything that needs doing or staying on task and on time. Truckers should be able to independently determine what needs to be done and develop a game plan for delivering the load on schedule and without major issues.

What do you need to become an OTR trucker?

The most essential step in becoming an OTR driver is getting your CDL certification. The licensing process may vary by state, but will involve a combination of a written test and a practical driving test. As with any driving test, you can go it alone and try to cram on your own, but there are many commercial driving schools that offer programs that train you, walk you through testing, and prepare you for what life will be like as an OTR driver. The CDL focuses on the skills and mechanical know-how necessary to operate large tractor trailers. You can also get optional certification in specialties like transporting hazardous materials.

How much do OTR drivers get paid?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for delivery drivers is $41,430, or $19.87 per hour. This can vary pretty widely, depending on factors like the driver’s experience level, the type of freight being transported, and the distance. Some drivers are paid a flat rate for an entire trip, while others are paid by the mile.

What’s the outlook for OTR drivers?

This is a very steady field and will continue to be so. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that the OTR driving field will grow by about 5% by 2024.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.