Owner-operators and hired drivers have many of the same concerns when it comes to finding the right motor carrier. Both are looking for the carrier with the package that best suits their financial and personal requirements. Professional drivers want to know how to tell who is offering them a good driving job, and who's blowing smoke. The job search skills of analyzing what's offered and separating fact from fiction can benefit all truckers.
There are a number of steps the professional driver can take to maximize his/her chances of finding the right lease (or job). First, make a list of what you're looking for in a motor carrier. Divide your list into three categories: "must have," "not an issue," and "can't handle." Then write the following job-related issues (and any others that occur to you) in the appropriate column according to your personal preferences and needs:
Base plate and permit costs, type of freight, fuel surcharges, loading/unloading requirements and pay, drop pay, tolls, time out on the road, guaranteed time off, special equipment requirements, forced dispatch, insurance requirements, pay periods, fuel discounts, fuel tax reporting, tire programs.
Loading/unloading requirements and pay, drop pay, layover and motel expenses, tolls, rider policy, time out on the road, guaranteed time off, assigned equipment, type of equipment, governed speeds, forced dispatch, pets allowed in trucks, type of freight, taking the equipment home, medical, dental, vision, and life insurance benefits, 401K plan, vacations, and holidays.
Decide if there are any areas where you might be willing to compromise to gain in another area.
The bottom line
Finally, at the bottom of the page write the minimum amount of gross annual income you require. You can guess at this if you want to, but having budgets for both your household and your business would make arriving at an annual figure easier. In addition, professional truckers must not forget personal road expenses as well as projected income taxes from the annual income figure you've named to get an accurate picture of your earnings.
It is important to arrive at an annual earnings figure. Trying to determine what you need to make per week or month is an exercise in futility. Some weeks you'll get as many as 3,500 miles, while some weeks you may get only 1,000 miles. So it's important to look at the big picture. Some carriers were offering minimum mileage guarantees a few years back, but that practice has stopped for the most part.
Now you have a set of guidelines to help find the best job for you. Every driver is different and what one driver may consider the perfect job will send another driver running for the classifieds.
A motor carrier's drivers are the best source of information for a potential newcomer. If you're thinking about leasing or hiring on with a particular carrier, talk to as many of their drivers as you can. It is to your benefit to talk to drivers that have worked for the carrier at least a year. The longer a driver has been with the carrier, the more likely you are to get a reasonably accurate picture of how well the carrier keeps its promises. Drivers who have been with the carrier for only a short period of time may not give you the most accurate picture (good or bad) of what the job could entail in the long run. If you can't seem to locate any drivers who have been with the company over a year, this should send up a red flag. Time to look elsewhere.
Never sit down with the want ads or venture into the recruiting section of a truck show without a calculator. When a carrier tells you what you can make in a year, turn that calculator on.
For example, a carrier who pays 80 cents per mile loaded and 60 cents per mile empty tells prospective owner-operators that they can make $150,000 per year. Allowing for 10 percent deadhead miles, take 10 percent of $150,000, which is $15,000. Divide that by 60 cents, which gives you 25,000 miles. The other 90 percent equals $135,000, which divided by 80 cents equals 168,750 miles. Add your mileage and you'll find you need to cover 193,750 miles per year to gross $150,000. That means your truck must average 531 miles every single day of the year. Reduce that by days off, layovers, downtime for maintenance, and those days you spend all day unloading and reloading, and your chances of making $150,000 with this motor carrier are pretty remote, especially when you take hours-of-service criteria into consideration. With the HOS reform at hand and enforcement efforts on the gain, make sure your expectations are realistic. If you have a co-driving spouse, it might improve the odds, but only slightly.
The owner-operator who is considering a lease that pays a percentage of gross freight charges will have a more difficult time verifying a motor carrier's claims. Interviewing a number of owner-operators who have been with the carrier for a while will improve the odds of getting an accurate picture.
Employed drivers are in pretty much the same boat as the mileage-paid owner-operator. Beware of the motor carrier who tells you that, as a solo driver, you can make "up to $50,000 a year." If they pay 30 cents per mile, then $50,000 divided by a starting wage of 30 cents per mile means that you must drive 166,667 miles per year. Divide that by 365 and you'll find you must average 457 miles every single day of the year to make that kind of money. Start reducing the 365 days by the number of days you plan to be at home during the year, and the average miles per day needed to make $50,000 starts climbing.
Now, there are two things wrong with this picture. The first one is that we've never heard of any over-the-road driver (owner-operator or employed driver) who drives every single day of the year, much less one that would want to.
The second thing wrong is whether a solo driver could legally cover that many miles per year. Without running into the "over 70 hours" problem, the maximum number of hours you can log per day, if you never take a day off, is 8.75. Taking pre-trip and post-trip inspections, fueling, loading and unloading into consideration, and then looking at a minimum of 457 miles per day, the prospect for staying legal is questionable, at best. First, ask the carrier how many of their drivers made $50,000 last year. Assuming you get an accurate answer (and this could be a huge assumption in some cases), ask yourself how hard this carrier might expect its drivers to run to earn $50,000 a year. Would a co-driver make a difference in a case like this? Depends on what teams are paid, and it likely wouldn't be 30 cents each.
Many motor carriers offer bonuses in one form or another, usually based on your mileage, claims and safety records over a stated period of time. Some recruiters add these bonuses to the base pay per mile and attempt to convince you that this is what you'll "really be making." Never add any bonus to a base pay figure to arrive at the minimum amount of money you must earn to meet your financial obligations. Never. The dictionary defines bonus as "a reward" not a guarantee. No matter how good your record as a truckdriver is, sometimes there are situations beyond your control. By all means, work to earn the bonus, but never depend on it.
But my wife's going into labor...
Many carriers have discovered that home-time guarantees are a valuable recruiting tool. Many drivers value the knowledge that they will have a certain amount of time with their families. Keep in mind that the majority of motor carriers expect their drivers to be flexible when a load has got to move. The nature of trucking is that the best laid plans can fall apart at the last minute. A driver who has been assigned to a load may have become ill or had a family emergency. A primary shipper may have received an unexpected order. Both owner-operators and company drivers recognize that these situations do occur, whether or not they particularly care for the fact.
What is important for you to determine is whether the carrier takes steps to minimize the occurrence of these unwelcome surprises. Does the carrier work with drivers to solve these problems with the least possible inconvenience to all concerned? Ask the carrier what their policy is in these situations. Beware of the motor carrier who tells you that this never happens. Some truckers report being threatened with termination for refusing a load in these situations.
Your career as a professional truckdriver is tied irrevocably to your ability to earn adequate money and to your level of contentment. The absence of adequate pay and an adequate level of satisfaction threatens productivity and profitability. Keep this thought in mind before you sign on the dotted line. Be happy, make money.
Editor's note: Ruth Jones, Land Line's senior editor, has been licensed to drive a big rig (and has done so) for 22 years. For this article, she teamed up with Mike Howe, a freelance writer from Lusk, WY, who was formerly employed as a recruiter for a major motor carrier.