Faces of the future
Derailed by recession, a new generation of drivers - resilient, results-oriented young people - are finding a home in trucking.

By Greg Grisolano, associate editor and Mark Schremmer, staff writer

In the winter of 2006, Tom Quilico was a 22-year-old, underemployed union laborer trying to scratch out a living working construction jobs in Kansas City.

A friend of his whose family has a trucking company offered him a new career path - get a CDL and a job as a truck driver.

"When I saw the money I was making, I wasn't making very good wages as an apprentice. Going from that to driving a truck and being able to work every day, I really liked it," he said. "I was single. I didn't have a girlfriend or kids. At that time in my life, it was the best opportunity I could take."

A decade later and Quilico's still out on the road. He's an owner-operator, who just leased on with Schneider, hauling LTL and dry van freight after spending the first seven years of his career hauling flatbed and oversized loads. His home situation has changed dramatically too. He's now a father to a 6-year-old son, and has a fiancée at home in Blue Springs, Mo.

He's one of almost 20,000 OOIDA members and Land Line subscribers who are 35 years old or younger. Armed with technology at their side and dollar signs as their motivation, a new generation of truck drivers aim to take the industry into the future.

While their appearance and the gadgets they use may be different, the goal of the so-called "millennial" truck drivers is often the same as their predecessors. The millennials plan to use the trucking industry as their path to achieving the American dream, and most of them say they are in for the long haul.

Chasing the American dream

Less than 10 years ago, Edgar Espinoza was spending his days working in a California warehouse. The days were long and hot, and the pay was meager.

But as a high school dropout with only a GED at his disposal, Espinoza's employment options were limited.

Gradually Espinoza got to know some of the local truck drivers. The more he talked with them, the more he viewed the industry as a way out.

"I liked that you could get paid a little more money," Espinoza said.

"It was a chance to get a career going instead of just breaking a sweat in a warehouse. Trucking provided a lot of opportunities."

Since then, Espinoza has seized those opportunities.

He started as a company driver in 2007 and has made trucking his career. This past October, the 35-year-old from Santa Clarita, Calif., became an owner-operator. The industry affords him the freedom of being his own boss and a chance to provide for his wife and three sons.

"I made that jump," Espinoza said. "Right now, it's all very exciting. I'm working for myself. The money is a little better, and I have that freedom to work for myself."

After failing to finish high school, trucking granted Espinoza the second chance he needed.

"I teach my kids about the importance of education all the time," Espinoza said. "You have to have an education. But I'd say I'm not doing too bad for a high school dropout."

Using truck driving as the highway toward the American dream is not unusual. Many millennials have left jobs in construction or the restaurant business to make a career in trucking.

Parvinder Singh, a 25-year-old from Bakersfield, Calif., earned a computer technician's degree in India but was working at a Pizza Hut after moving to the United States. Then a friend turned him on to the idea of trucking. Now Singh is an owner-operator, delivering food across the United States.

Octavia Shavers, a 25-year-old from Tifton, Ga., took online classes at American Intercontinental University but didn't finish her degree. She was working as a cook at a restaurant when her boyfriend challenged her to become a truck driver.

"He's been doing it 10 years, and he dared me to see if I could do it," she said. "So I did it, and I just kept going. I've been doing it three years now."

Amanda Jones, a 35-year-old from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, is only two years into her driving career, but spent 13 years in the jump seat handling the business side of things while her husband, Art Johansson, drove. They haul general freight out of Canada to anywhere in the U.S. except New York and New Jersey.

"I was basically riding along and doing all the paperwork and the phone calls, everything but steering and shifting," she said. "It's nice to not actually have a boss sitting over you telling you exactly what to do. I like the freedom even though it seems like we don't have as much now, due to some of the regulations."

Remus Sulea, a 29-year-old from Ypsilanti, Mich., emigrated from Romania at the age of 18 looking for work. He found it in the construction industry until the work dried up during the recession. He's now an owner-operator, supporting his wife and four kids at home.

'Dollars are what drive my bus'

Jamin Zeman says he doesn't let it bother him when he hears older truckers grouse about him being too young to own two trucks.

"There's a lot of guys that are gonna give me an attitude like I'm a greenhorn or a rookie," he said. "You definitely get under some people's skins when they look at you, and you're a young guy and you tell them you got two trucks. You definitely pinch some nerves."

At 22 years old, Zeman, of Bassett, Neb., hauls cattle. He grew up on a farm and always had a thing for trucks, but he says he got into the business primarily to make money. He spends most of his time on the road right now - two months at a time then home for a weekend before rolling again. He hopes to build up his business enough to keep adding to his fleet and eventually slow down and spend some time with his 5-year-old daughter.

"The truck only makes money if you're sitting in it," he said. "We don't truck this hard because it's that joyful. We're trying to get some more trucks out here and get some more home time in the future. I got a plan. I don't know if it's a good one, but I got one."

As for the naysayers?

"I just tip my little hat and walk away," he said. "Them kind of guys don't make me one dollar, and dollars are what drive my bus. The guys that are going to make a comment are usually the guys who are sitting in someone else's truck on a dead-end career."

Amanda Felix catches people off-guard when they find out she and her husband started a trucking company. The 30-year-old from Bellerose, N.Y., is a semester away from earning her degree in the Physicians Assistant Program at St. John's University.

"People look at me like I'm crazy," Felix said. "They think, 'why would you get involved in trucking when you're in the medical field?'"

But Felix saw potential in the industry after talking to her brother-in-law Miguel Felix, who has been a truck driver for 15 years.

"I researched it, and I found that it's a really good industry," she said. "My husband and I have always been go-getters and looking for ways to make money."

The Felixes purchased a tractor-trailer and formed Crucian Transport Inc., despite neither having a CDL.

"I'm 150 percent into this business," Felix said. "I see the potential. I think everyone's American dream is to work for themselves. I'm willing to put in the work and the blood, sweat and tears to make it happen."

Espinoza has used the trucking industry as a way to provide for his family of five.

"I worked in construction when I first got out of high school," Espinoza said. "I've been around other industries. Trucking is a great industry. There's money to be made in trucking, but you have to be smart."

Challenges

Susan Covey will be the first to tell you she's not like most women her age. Or most women, period. At age 3, she wanted to be a mechanic, and she's always been way more into spinning wrenches than spinning around in frilly dresses.

In high school, she started working as an auto mechanic, and served four years as a rifleman in the Canadian Army reserve. At age 21, she went to truck driving school, with an eye toward hauling south of the border.

Now 31, she's spent the better part of the last 10 years trucking from her home in Kaladar, Ontario. She's an owner-operator leased to a small carrier that runs primarily from Ontario to Maine.

For her, the biggest challenge isn't being a single mom, or a woman in a male-dominated industry. It's the way the industry is changing to accommodate people - regardless of gender - who don't have the skills to do the job.

"They've made the trucks automatic, they've made everything with an 'idiot light' on it, and nobody's actually being trained like it was in the old days how to solve their own problems and get where they are going," she said.

Those changes, she says, are pushing out experienced professionals who have not only the skills but the passion for the trade as well.

"Those of us that are capable, that are skilled, that are dedicated, that eat, sleep and breathe their trucks are being shoved out the door and marginalized by people that will do it for 20 cents a mile. And you know what, they may cause a fatal accident but if Werner fires them, they can go work for Swift tomorrow," she said.

"There's so much unskilled labor in this job, and because of that we're being regulated to death - e-logs, speed limiters. … The more restrictions they put on, the dumber they make people. The dumber they make people, the more restrictions they build. And again, it's just marginalized the good drivers.

"If I have a message to the world, that's it," she said. "Quit making it 'idiot-proof' and hiring idiots to do it, and then wondering why idiots do idiotic things."

More than one driver mentioned the challenges and skepticism they face not just from their peers, but from discriminating shippers or overzealous DOT inspectors.

Sulea said he sometimes gets hassled by brokers, who in the past have tried to use his age to pressure him to take loads for less money.

"When you're young, they give you the worst loads, or the cheapest-paying loads. Even if they hear on the phone that you are young, they try to give you a cheaper price, just because you are young."

Zeman said he feels the squeeze, but more so from enforcement officers, who "want to pull you over because they think you're a snot-nosed kid."

"They try to take you out of the business before you even get started," he said. "I definitely feel like if you're a younger driver, they're going to run you over the coals."

Felix said there are significant challenges for a young woman in the industry.

"I've had older drivers who didn't want to work for me simply because I'm young and because I'm a woman," she said.

Whether male or female, Felix said all young truck drivers face hurdles.

"The price of insurance makes it difficult to hire young drivers," she said. "There's a high liability. I know there are young drivers out there who will work hard, but insurance causes a roadblock to hire them at small companies."

Regardless of age, time away from family can be difficult for all truck drivers.

In Sulea's case, being away from his children - who are 8, 5, 3 and 6 months old - is the hardest part of the job.

"It's very hard, very hard, believe me," he said. "My biggest son, sometimes with him it's like I'm a stranger because he doesn't see me a lot, just on the weekends and stuff. I took him to school a couple days ago and he was upset. He wants his mom to take him to school."

Espinoza said he knows his time on the road creates a burden for his wife, who is at home with their three children.

"The only downside to the job is the time away from home," he said. "I've been married going on 15 years, and we have two teenage sons and a 1-year-old boy. She's had to sacrifice, too. But my wife and I are in constant communication. We've brought them up right, and we trust them to be good boys. But there are times when she'll call me while I'm on the road, and it has gotten overwhelming for her. Without her being so strong, I wouldn't be able to do this.

"It can be a very hard industry. You have to be very mature and ready for this job. You have to be mentally strong. There are going to be holidays, and you can't be there. Everybody is at home enjoying Thanksgiving, and you're stuck in Wisconsin."

Singh hasn't seen his parents since he moved from India about six years ago.

Shavers said she misses being able to watch her nephew grow up.

"Being away from family is the hardest part," she said. "That's what I like the least about the job."

Technology

By and large, those interviewed say technology plays a key role in their business. From smartphone apps like TruckerPath to services like FaceTime and Skype for keeping in touch with family and friends back home, staying connected is an essential part of the business plan.

Hank Messer is using tablets to help his family's specialty feed hauling business run more efficiently. Although just 26, Messer, of Amarillo, is in charge of the business - Messer Agri Industries. A graduate of West Texas A&M, he oversees 16 drivers who primarily haul on dedicated contracts. The tablets use Fleetmatics for GPS, and help Messer keep tabs on his fleet at any time of the day.

"We're just adding a whole new side of it that makes life a lot easier," he said. "I can sit here at my computer and tell you where my trucks are at any given time."

He said the biggest challenge he faces is being "a 26-year-old man trying to manage 50-year-old men."

"You got a lot of work ahead of you. It takes a long time to get their mentality to change," he said. "The older generation is real set in their ways and how they do things."

Technology certainly doesn't scare Singh. The owner of a computer technician's degree in India, he embraces technology in all aspects of his business.

"Everything is done on my phone," Singh said. "If I want to check road conditions or the weather, I use my phone. If I'm looking for work, I use my phone."

Despite being on the older end of the millennial spectrum, 35-year-old Espinoza has no hesitancy when it comes to using technology.

"Whatever you can use to help you with your job, I think it's great," he said. "I use a lot of apps. I use Google maps. I go online for the best fuel prices. I can do all my bills at home. Every tool possible, it's on my phone."

Jones says in addition to apps, her smartphone is invaluable for a variety of jobs, including taking pictures of loads as they are being loaded onto the trailer.

"If I'm doing produce, I'll take pictures of the loads and send them to the boss, showing the temperature and everything so he knows," she said. "We take tons of pictures of cars before we load them to make sure there's no damage. I take photos with the phone all the time."

Once the photos are taken, Jones said she uses Gmail and Google Drive to share the images with her boss and in some cases with the customer. She and her husband also have a Garmin 20 dashcam they use as a CYA.

"We bought it ourselves and our company loves it," she said. "There's so much litigation in the U.S. In Canada there's a lot less suing people and a lot less blame. But in the U.S. it's like they'll set you up (in a crash), just for cash."

The future

Felix is nearing the end of her first year in the trucking business.

She expects it to be the first of many.

"There are so many opportunities in transportation," Felix said. "If I had known about this 10 years ago, I would have started much sooner. It's like a marriage now. We're in this."

Felix believes the industry has a future for the millennial generation and beyond.

"The younger generation needs to learn about the opportunities available in transportation," she said. "I'm telling my nephews to go get their associate's degree and then go get their CDLs.

"Becoming a truck driver can lead you to becoming an independent business owner. You can become an entrepreneur just by becoming a truck driver. It can lead to owning a company, being a carrier, starting a dispatching service or becoming a broker. Just driving a truck can lead you to so many things. The younger generation needs to know what the transportation industry has to offer."

Three years in, and Shavers is making it as a driver.

"I rub it in my boyfriend's face every chance I get," she said.

However, she doesn't want to be a driver forever.

"I will probably give it three to five more years, and then I'll quit and stay home and have someone else drive my truck."

Espinoza also hopes he can eventually stay home while others drive his trucks.

Singh said he's unsure what the future holds.

"I don't think about all that right now," Singh said. "Right now, I'm just driving. I like it for now. In a few years, I'll reassess."

Sulea is more pessimistic about the future of the industry, particularly if the electronic logging mandate withstands OOIDA's latest legal challenge. He said if the mandate survives, he's probably going to find something else to do, because the regulations are putting the squeeze on him and others in the business. The looming threat of ever-increasing regulations makes it difficult for him to see a future in the industry, for himself or other younger drivers.

"They keep squeezing us like that (with regulations)," he said. "Diesel went down a lot and I'm not complaining. Now, you save $200, but the same load you used to do they cut the price $600, so you're not really saving any money. And everything else like the truck, the tires, the other expenses, they're all the same price. The tolls are all the same. They keep squeezing (us)."

While she's concerned about the threat of more regulation, Covey too, says she in it for the long haul.

"Some people drive a truck, and it's a job. They drive… and they don't think any more about it until they have to come back," she said. "I bought a house with truck parking and a garage to put my trucks in. My trucks are family, it is my life."

Covey says she's also bringing along the next "next generation" in her daughter Ruby, age 3.

"My 3-year-old daughter is exactly like I was, but maybe better. She's (helping) out, working on the truck, changing oil," she said.

Typically, Covey says she'll roll out on a Sunday evening and drop Ruby off with her parents until she gets back home, usually on Friday. Her daughter rides with her in the truck to her grandparents' house and also accompanies her to the shop and sometimes the truck yard.

"I don't leave her out of things. She's a good little apprentice," she said. "(Trucking)'s what we do. It's no different than if you're a farmer. Your kids are involved in that. This is what we do. It's the lifestyle of it, it's the legacy of it, it's a little bit of wanderlust and a rebel spirit."

What drew her most to the industry was what she called "the brotherhood" that she saw flourish between drivers of the older generation - something that was instilled in her by one of her mentors. She recalled the pride she felt pulling up to his house with her first truck, and the words he shared with her.

"I pulled up in front of his house and said, 'Well, Dad, what do you think?' because he's almost like an adopted father to me. We're pretty close. And he got all choked up and said 'I want you to be very careful with this truck… and I don't mean don't hit anything. I want you to be careful. I'll tell you right now, trucking is like (a disease). If it gets in your blood, you'll never get rid of it.' And he was right in every sense of the word, but I think only certain people are affected that way. But he was one of them and so am I." LL