Allen Schwartz is an owner-operator who grew up in the trucking business. His father owned a trucking company, and his first job was polishing and working on the trucks. He moved on to booking loads, and then went to trade school to learn diesel mechanics. By the time he was 20, he started driving. Being out on the road put him in a position where he had to be responsible for himself, his cargo and the other drivers on the road, and it kept him out of trouble. That was 17 years ago. Over the years, the diesel mechanic training has helped Schwartz save money on truck repairs. “Shops currently charge between $80 and $110 per hour for labor, and it’s just not possible to pay that much for every small repair,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said his personal preference is to get a load and then drive two or three days without having to worry about dealing with people. Unfortunately for Schwartz and other drivers who like the long hauls, the industry is changing. Many of the cross-country loads go by rail, and the big companies are doing more and more local and regional trips.
Although he says many people get into the job expecting to find freedom on the open road, drivers have to work for someone, and the large companies that will hire inexperienced drivers have little freedom to offer.
Schwartz was lucky enough to have family background in the trucking business, but he sees unfortunate developments in the way many drivers are coming in now. “The big companies are churning out drivers so fast; there are many more drivers than currently needed.” The labor surplus drives down wages for everyone and creates an environment where people are treated like interchangeable cogs in a wheel. If one burns out and breaks down, he can be easily replaced with a new cog in a matter of minutes.
“Unfortunately, the vast majority of companies who will hire new drivers are not good places to work. They do not treat you well, and have little concern with your well-being or happiness. They know you won’t last long, so they get as much out of you as they can.”
Stuck in a miserable work situation, a driver might decide to quit and find a better job before he finishes out his first year on the job. That driver will still be short on experience and will probably only be able to find work at a similar new-hire firm where the environment is probably going to be about the same as the last place. If he quits and starts again, then any future employers looking at his record will see three or four jobs in the space of a year, and he’ll have a real challenge finding work with a good company.
Of beginning drivers, Schwartz says, “Just bite the bullet, keep your head down, get your year in, and then go look for a good place to work.”
The definition of a good place to work will vary from person to person. Schwartz said he prefers the personal attention of a small company, but others like having a nice new truck every three years like you get at a big company.
As an owner-operator with a small and well-run company, Schwartz says he has a little more freedom than many drivers, but the job still has its challenges. Profit margins are tight. Freight brokers – companies that do not own their own fleets or warehouses but arrange cargo transportation through contractors – are able to take advantage of competition between trucking firms to pay as little as possible for shipping, and they have no responsibility to show how much profit they are keeping off of each load. This creates a difficult situation in which the carriers, who bear all the expenses of fleet maintenance, insurance and payroll, are competing for a limited amount of freight and willing to accept a profit margin very close to zero because some work is better than none. Meanwhile, the freight brokers, who have very low overhead, charge as much profit as they wish per load.
“We have all the overhead, all they have is a phone and a computer,” Schwartz said.