Tim O’Donnell has more than 35 years of experience in the dump truck business. He is an owner-operator in the Northern Virginia area. At one time, he owned four trucks and hauled dirt to and from construction sites. In the early 2000s, the building business was booming in the suburbs of Washington, DC, where O’Donnell is based. But times have changed.
When O’Donnell first started driving truck in 1974, he was making $15/hour, a considerable sum for that time, considering he had been making $2.50/hour as a mechanic’s helper before moving on to trucking. Those were the days before the CDL, when you could just drive. O’Donnell contracted his services to larger trucking companies who would dispatch him out to work as needed. When times were really good, he was making $65/hour, but around 2007, things started to change.
The money was so attractive that a flood of new drivers started buying trucks and looking for work. The surplus of drivers pushed down the prices dump truckers could charge. At the same time, the economy stalled. New home construction slowed to a crawl in the DC suburbs. Since companies send out company drivers first and then dispatch excess work to contractors, owner-operators like O’Donnell found themselves sitting for days at a time.
Weather made the picture even more bleak. “When it rains, the dump trucks don’t work,” O’Donnell said. With hourly rates down to $50/hour, gas continuing to rise and not enough work to keep him busy every day, O’Donnell said he’s actively looking for a job change. He has completed a training program to work on aircraft engines, and he has plenty of mechanical experience from working on his own fleet, so he is considering shifting gears into aircraft maintenance.
O’Donnell said it’s hard to think of good reasons to get into the truck business unless you pursue tractor-trailer driving or gas hauling. “Find something that runs steady, rain or shine,” he said. The long hours of sitting still and the unsteady work are disheartening, and then there are the frustrations of having to repair every issue that comes up with a vehicle. He is currently replacing his truck’s transmission entirely by himself.
Asked what advice he would give someone interested in pursuing a dump truck career, O’Donnell’s only words were, “Get a real job. The pay’s too cheap and the work’s not steady.”