When Chesley Webber picked up the phone, he had just finished tying down and tarping a load of sodium cyanide on a flatbed trailer that was currently behind his truck in Memphis, Tennessee. He was surfing the Internet, relaxing from the physically exhausting job and getting ready to head to Canada the next day. Webber drives truck for Empire Express, a family-owned and operated trucking company that’s been around since 1985. The firm is headquartered in Memphis, and it serves 48 states and Canada with a fleet of about 200 trucks. Webber says the small fleet size allows for precise attention to detail and the development of strong personal relationships.
This is a big change of pace from the company where Webber started out driving. He found a recruiter online who connected him with one of the big trucking companies that would send him to school to get his CDL. These training programs are fairly common, the schools make it sound like you’re getting free training, but it isn’t really free, Webber said. “They train you, and then they charge you so much a month for a year and they pay you nothing.” Webber said his pay at the first company was 26 cents a mile compared to the 46 cents he made when he switched carriers. In addition to the low pay, the training company’s contract stipulated that if he stayed with the company less than 12 months, he would owe them $6500, which they claimed was the cost of training.
“You can go straight to a community college and do the same training for about $1,500, but no one ever tells you that,” Webber said.
There are several large national trucking companies that offer similar arrangements, and according to Webber, it’s just a necessary part of becoming a driver. The more reputable companies are reluctant to hire new drivers with no experience, so when you first start out you have to take what you can get. And there are so many other new drivers looking for work that it creates a situation where big firms treat drivers like worthless commodities.
Webber stayed with his first company 14 months, and he still wonders why he hung on for the extra two after his training agreement expired.
Some folks go into trucking looking for the freedom of the open road. In his case, Webber jokes, he was hungry and broke and looking for work. Before he took the job, he said he used to have a negative impression of truckers, but now that he’s been one for several years and met hundreds of other drivers, all his old stereotypes have gone out the window. He said he’s met former professionals who turned to trucking to escape the office and see the country. He’s seen little old ladies behind the wheel of a semi, and men in their 80s who have been driving for 45 years. “I think a lot more people can do this than think they can,” Webber said.
Truck drivers tend to be a little older than in some other jobs, partly because the lifestyle is hard for people with families. Trucking requires a lot of flexibility. “If you’re not flexible, you’re not going to make it,” Webber said.
For example, a few weeks ago, he arrived at a pickup site in Fargo, North Dakota after the loading dock closed one Friday night. That meant he had to hang around Fargo all weekend until the customer reopened again on Monday. In his truck. In the winter, when it was 10 degrees below zero. “Thank goodness for the iPhone. I did a lot of internet searches and reading.”
Fortunately, the whole job isn’t sitting around and waiting. The company knows he wants to keep rolling until he has to go to sleep. He’s been to all the continental states, Alaska and every province in Canada except Newfoundland. Along the way, he’s seen bears in the wild, a pack of wolves, and every other kind of wildlife. When the wheels stop turning, he said he doesn’t feel bored so much as wasted-wasted talent, wasted time, wasted skill. If he were home, he could use his down time to build or create something, but instead, he sits in his truck, waiting.