It seems to me that in some cases at least, companies are not doing their new drivers any favors. Take someone who is right out of school, brand new to the industry. Most companies will require that the new driver spend time with a company trainer/finisher who is responsible for adding some polish to the student''s abilities. It''s up to the trainer to ensure the student knows what is expected of them by their new company and to make sure that the driver is ready for the road on his/her own.
Our student has spent much time studying the books, learning how to inspect their vehicle and make sure it is safe for the road. They are fairly proficient at backing the truck and more often than not they find the right gear at the right time. Now all they need is to put into practice what they have learned. Graduation from trucking school was a day that filled the new driver with a sense of pride and even more so is the day that a company hands them the keys to their first truck.
I remember my first truck, it was an "R" model Mack. Old and worn but it had been well maintained and was powerful enough to get the job done. The seat was broken so that is didn't only rock forwards and backwards as it is supposed to do, it also moved left and right and even swung in circles which actually made the ride so comfortable that when I moved out of it into something newer, I asked if I could take the old seat with me. I was proud of my old truck and spent time keeping it clean and shiny. I don''t remember now how many gears it had, five I think. Then I moved to a CH600 Mack with a ten speed transmission. It was new and solid compared to my old worn "R" Model. Next I joined CFI and they gave me a Flat Top Kenworth with the same transmission, 10 gears. A little further along the road I climbed into a new truck with 13 gears and learned how useful those splits can be. It took a mile or two to get used to the new transmission and I was a happy truck driver. Now I have a 12 speed automatic and not worrying about shifting is kinda nice. Actually it is very nice. Perhaps I should be using a five line logbook, the extra line would be "On Duty, Just Steering!"
As in anything there is a learning curve. I started with five gears but it wouldn't have mattered if it were nine, ten, thirteen or eighteen because I would have learned it and practiced what I had learned in training by doing the job. I have been at this game for a long time and consider myself able to climb into any truck and handle the transmission without crashing the box so much that cogs litter the road behind me.
Now lets go back to our student who has just learned how to handle a ten or thirteen speed transmission, remember him? He just got the keys to his first truck. If he is lucky he will have a transmission similar the ones that he has been learning, either a ten or thirteen speed. He climbs into the cab for the first time, looking around at the amenities to his comfort which he hopes are adequate. There''s the bed, clean and comfortable. The storage space, excellent. The seat is comfortable and not too well used.
Our new driver sits in the driver's seat and studying the instrument panel realizes it is about the same as the trucks he has been in before. In fact the students new truck is almost identical to the other trucks he has driven, except for one thing. The gear stick, if that is what it is, doesn't protrude from the floor, rather it sticks out of a box that is mounted on the seat. It''s an automatic!
At first our student will be happy at the discovery. Automatic, and an easy drive! Yeah! What the Student doesn't yet understand is that their new company has, albeit unintentionally, set them up for a fall. The driver is still learning and needs to put into practice what has been learned to that point. The new driver needs to shift a manual transmission until it is second nature, but the company has provided an automatic. It will not be long before our student can handle the truck with the confidence of a veteran but when the day comes that they move to another truck, one that doesn't have an automatic their confidence will take a hit as they crash through the gears trying to relearn what they should already know.
I am currently driving an automatic and enjoy it immensely but having spent the last 20 years driving any number of different manual transmissions, I can return to them without a thought. Its like riding a bike, you don't forget; but riding this bike takes practice and the student who is thrust into the world of automatics without being given an opportunity to ride the manual shifted bike will fall off it as soon has he returns to the manual world.
There are a number of companies these days who offer nothing but auto-shifters and fully automatic transmissions. To my mind these companies are not the best places for students to start, simply because after years behind the wheel of an automatic, they will find themselves short of options if they look towards another company which doesn't happen to offer similar equipment.
I can''t fault the companies that use automatics, it makes sense because if the predominance of their transmissions are not being "crashed" by students they last longer, or maybe they won''t. Either way, a company makes decisions that are the best for them and while not intending to cause their drivers a later headache, that is often the result.
This blog was prompted by a new member of our community who is facing this very problem. He has over a year with a company driving automatics, now he is looking to move to Con-way Truckload who has very few of these transmissions. He will be tested on a manual transmission, which he has not driven since he was in trucking school and he may fall short of what the examiner is looking for, it''s not his fault but that will not matter. Perhaps Con-way will give him an opportunity to relearn by allowing him to spend time with one of our trainers, maybe they won''t. He has experience as an Over the Road driver and that makes him valuable. His lack of experience with a manual transmission will make him less desirable. We will have to see how it turns out for him.
New drivers, consider your choices and your future in the industry when you apply to your first company. Driving an automatic may be easy but it might restrict you somewhat. It is quite possible that in the future we will see more automatic transmissions and we may reach the point where there are nothing but automatic transmission equipped trucks on the road but that future is a long way off. For now the most valuable driver is one that is versatile, able to handle anything on wheels.
Don't box yourself in.
Note: Since writing we have learned that the New Driver who applied to Con-way Truckload with no real practice with a manual transmission was given time with a trainer and is now able to handle the transmissions with ease.