Americans have had a love affair with long haul trucking for years, because they equate this way of life with the way cowboys lived back in the day.
While there definitely are some similarities, over-the-road truckers live a far different life than those who drove cattle, lived on the open plains for months at a time and subsisted on beans and jerky!
There is clearly an aura of romance, excitement and adventure in both ways of life. For this reason, many dream of one day becoming truckers.
What they don't realize is that there is more to this career than just jumping into the driver's seat of a big rig and heading out to parts unknown.
It is not difficult to become a trucker. What may be difficult is understanding that this is a business and must be operated like one if you are to succeed.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to learn the facts about long-haul trucking from someone like me, who actually worked as an owner-operator for several years.
Five Things to Consider Before Deciding to Become a Trucker
If you want to become a cross-country trucker, there are five things to consider before deciding to become involved with this career.
1. Equipment Costs
A new semi and a new trailer can cost around $150,000—if you get a good deal.
Roughly figured, a purchase at a 10% interest rate with a $10,000 down payment will give you a monthly payment over 15 years of about $1500 per month.
Over 30 years, the payment will come to $1200 a month. Even at the 30-year rate, the annual cost comes to about $14,000 per year.
2. Other Costs
Trucking is an expensive business. In addition to the truck and trailer, CB radios, radar scanners, cell phones, GPS systems, and onboard computers are necessities. Truckers must also pay for travel permits, insurance, food, fuel, tolls, motels, repairs and upkeep.
3. Lifestyle Issues
Trucking is mostly a man's career. The days are long and lonely, and the conditions can be difficult and dangerous. Truckers are generally on the road for months at a time, which is hard on relationships and often leads to divorce and relationship problems.
People tend to think that truckers make a lot of money, but the costs involved in the trucking business are very high. The net income from driving 100,000 miles averages only $22,000.
5. Health Concerns
Trucking is not a healthy career. It usually results in back problems, hearing loss, stomach issues and heart problems.
Truckers are often sleep-deprived due to their long driving hours, changes in time zones and poor sleeping facilities. This can lead to numerous physical and mental problems.
It's important to understand everything involved in cross-country trucking before you decide it’s the career for you.
Trucking has many good points, but it is not for everybody.
Trucking Is a Business
Let me be clear about one thing. Trucking is a business.
This means that you have to keep track of your expenses, choose your loads such that you earn the most money for the miles you drive, watch how you spend your money when you're on the road, handle bills of lading, deal with a huge variety of companies, maintain the truck you drive and make sure that you don't run afoul of the mighty DOT.
More than one trucker has lost everything because he did not understand what I've just said.
Yes, this career can be fun and exciting, but the bottom line is to know how to make a profit doing it.
Training and Licensing
The only way to get into the business is to take a driver training course.
These can last between four to six weeks and can cost between $1,000 to $7,000.
When you graduate, you'll qualify for a CDL (commercial driver's license). Once you have one, you're ready to go to work.
Some companies will provide the training you need at a more reasonable cost, but you will then have to work for them for a period of time, so choose carefully!
To be comfortable, safe and successful, owner-operators need to own the right equipment,
All truckers need to travel fully outfitted so that they have instant access to housing, a toilet and food no matter where they are.
There are times when you are waiting to pick up or drop off a load when there are no eating, housing or bathroom facilities available, so if you have what you need on board, you don’t have to worry about these issues.
This means you should drive a truck that has a sleeper attached to it. These come in a variety of sizes. Some are even as large as small campers and have their own showers.
Our sleeper had a small hanging closet, a ¾ bed with a heavy vinyl cover, a small cube heater, a porta-potty, a small TV, a small microwave, a small two-way refrigerator, a toaster, paper plates, plastic goods and basic food supplies.
We also kept a generator on board behind the sleeper that allowed us to run electrical devices when we were parked for the night.
Because we were properly outfitted, we could nap, sleep, eat, watch TV and use the toilet as needed.
People who want to truck for a living can choose to
- buy their equipment, get their own jobs and take care of all of their own paperwork,
- do the same as above but hire people to drive for them,
- buy their own equipment and hire on with a company that finds jobs for them and handles the majority of their paperwork or
- become an employee-driver for a big trucking company and work for a salary.
Those who choose to work as employees make a straight salary and have no vehicle costs, but they must go where they are told to go and do what they are told to do.
Owner-operators have more costs, but they also have much more control over how they do their jobs and how much they have to spend. They generally make more money than employed drivers.
However, it's important to note that owner-operators only get paid when they are loaded. Empty trucks earn nothing, but the travel costs remain the same.
Long-Haul Trucking Options
There are different types of cross-country trucking you can do, and each requires its own type of special equipment. These are some types of cargo and what it takes to handle them.
- Refrigerated food products, for which you'll need to have a large box truck that stays cool enough to keep food from being ruined.
- Dry products, for which you'll need a large dry box van.
- Livestock, for which you'll need a truck with venting that allows animals to breathe while being transported
- Vehicles and equipment, for which you'll need a flatbed trailer with side kits, chains and cords.
- Specialty loads, for which you'll need a drop deck capable of carrying awkward, heavy items.
It's important to understand the pros and cons of each option before you start your business so that you will be comfortable doing that type of work while on the road.
Some businesses are more difficult to do than others. For example, if you are hauling livestock, you are under time pressure; you have to deliver the product quickly so that the animals survive the trip and arrive in good condition. On the other hand, if you are hauling rolls of cable on a flatbed, you are not as tight on time, so your work is much less stressful.
How Things Work
Either you or the company you work for may advertise your business. Companies call and negotiate prices, and once prices are set, companies contact drivers and give them loading and drop-off directions.
Each state has requirements you must meet and fees you must pay in order to be able to transport products across state lines. They give you stickers that show you are legal to do this.
Every state has “weigh stations” that require truckers to stop for inspection and weighing. If your truck has any issues, the Department of Transportation workers will refuse to let you move on until they are repaired or upgraded. They often fine you, as well.
Although you must carry insurance, you still need to be careful about liability because no matter what you carry, you’ll be transporting items that cost many thousands of dollars.
If things get lost or damaged, it may be up to you to pay part or all of the costs. My husband and I had a friend who hauled automobiles. If he didn't load them correctly, or if a stone shattered the windshield of one of his vehicles, he had to buy it!
It will be up to you to decide on the level of liability insurance you want to have, so choose carefully!
Other Financial Issues
Those who simply drive for others have no equipment expenses, but owner-operators must buy and maintain their vehicles.
Prices for trucks, even used ones, are extremely high. New ones can cost well over $100,000. Trailers and equipment are also costly.
How much you pay for these items often determines how successful you will be, so it pays to shop around and get the best deal you can find.
Most truckers will drive between 100,000 to 150,000 miles per year and are on the road for many months at a time.
Truckers who drive more don't necessarily earn more. Those who earn more choose loads that pay the best and also provide the opportunity to get a good-paying load when they head to their next destination.
Dispatchers provide mileage that is “as the crow flies," but the actual mileage can be much more, which means the dollars per mile can be greatly reduced. So, knowing how to use a GPS or read a map can make a big difference in someone’s income.
While the per mile dollar amount you receive may seem high, expenses can quickly reduce profits.
Unless a person is employed as a driver, he will have to pay all equipment costs plus the costs of fuel, repairs, motels, diesel fuel and food. These items can greatly reduce profits, but they are also tax deductible, so this can help balance the financial scales a bit.
The average owner-operator takes home between $35,00 and $50,00 per year after expenses. The average cross-country driver makes around $39,000 per year before taxes.
However, these figures are based on the experience of the individual, how many miles he drives per year, how much he averages per mile and how good he is at managing his business!
Who Are the Truckers?
Long-haul truckers, both men and women, come from all walks of life.
- Some are in it for the money, while others just want the adventure.
- Others simply do it so that they can keep a roof over their heads!
Jobs are plentiful, so once people complete their driver training, they find work quickly.
Truckers have mixed experiences while they are on the job: beautiful scenery, the open road, beggars, nice neighborhoods, truck stops, accidents, vehicles on fire and people doing all kinds of crazy things.
One time we saw a man sunbathing on the toolbox that was located between his truck and his travel trailer. The truck was going 60 miles per hour at the time!
Drivers work long hours. They are forced into primitive conditions at times, don’t make much money, have high costs and live lonely lives. Their family relationships aren’t the best.
Yet, they always have a smile, a joke and a helping hand for each other, and just about all of them love what they do.
Is Cross Country Trucking for You?
Some people do well with this career, but others hate it.
You have to go to school to learn how to drive, deal with the DOT, put up with companies that try to cheat you, drive long, lonely hours and spend months at a time away from family and friends.
On the other hand, you don’t have a boss on your back all the time, and you can pick and choose your trips and can see places you would never have known about but for your work. You also get to meet interesting and unusual people along the way.
There is much more to being a long-haul trucker than what I’ve described here, but this gives you some idea about this career. You know that it may not be for everybody, but if you think you’d like this career, do some further research and decide whether it might be a job that will work for you.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2017 Sondra Rochelle