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Overdrive Extra

Max Heine

Is the owner-operator a dying breed?

| March 29, 2013

The common wisdom in some circles is that the owner-operator model is dying. There’s some reason for that conclusion. Major rounds of emission technology have added tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of new trucks. After years of loose credit ended in a recession, tight credit suddenly made the purchase of even a cheap used truck impossible for many buyers. Some owner-operators, fed up with an expanding regulatory maze, simply bailed out prematurely.

The owner-operator population has grown since the recession.

The owner-operator population has grown since the recession.

Be that as it may, the owner-operator obit isn’t the best conclusion to jump to.

During the recession, the owner-operator population fell to about 150,000. Then it climbed to 155,500 in 2011 and 165,100 in 2012.

This is based on our recently reported Overdrive-sponsored research, done independently by Commercial Motor Vehicle Consulting. CMVC uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau, The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and its own private research.

“Expanding demand for owner-operators has improved the business environment,” explained Chris Brady, head of CMVC.

I blogged to that effect last month, citing data presented by ATBS, the largest owner-operator financial services provider. ATBS records showed how, over the last 10 years, the owner-operator environment had mostly improved:

  • Much shorter length of haul and much more home time.
  • Net income per mile rising 3.8 percent each year, compared to 2.5 percent annual inflation.
  • On the down side, due to total miles dropping by a fifth, only 1 percent annual gain in total income, well below inflation.

The rosy parts didn’t sit well with certain readers. Out of 40 comments, almost all said it was “a bunch of crap,” “drivel” and corporate “lies and Propaganda.” I should be drug-tested, said one. Fired, said another.

So instead of looking at a decade of change, I thought perhaps more recent changes – say, from the fourth quarter of 2011 to the fourth quarter of 2012 –  would tell a tale of widespread woe, but they didn’t. Dry van owner-operators saw net income per mile rise modestly, from 43 cents to 45 cents, during that period, based on thousands of ATBS clients. But if you average dry van with reefer and flatbed, per-mile earnings rose from 45 cents to 49 cents. Independents did even better: 50 cents to 56 cents.

In some ways, running an owner-operator business is tougher than it used to be. Still, you can’t dodge the obvious: The economy is improving. A major part of the economy is trucking. And a major part of trucking is the owner-operator model, which has survived recessions, regulations, unionization efforts and other forces. It’s not going away.


  • Facebook User

    We are Owner/Ops that run grain locally. We cleared over $110 thousand last year on paper. But after misc taxes, truck/trailer payments, fuel, tires, insurance, repairs and misc other expenses we had a profit of approx. $11,000 to support a family of 4. That’s rough….

  • gary d

    is there a differance between leased operators, and owner operators as far as revenues are concerned? i know most leased operators get discounts on fuel,maintenance,insurance and other expenses. but how is this calculated agaisnt a true owner operator?

  • aflyerguy

    What you should distinguish in your article is “smart” O/O’s from “dumb” O?O’s !!! The smart ones run for the highest wages, and companies who pay their freight bills on time! The dumb ones, many of which are Mexican, take low-paying runs that others passed on, and drive broken-down, high-mileage rolling wrecks which endangers everyone on the road!! Smart O/O’s, like myself, are not afraid to switch companies when rates go up. If a company screws me over just once I leave and NEVER haul their freight ever again! No second chances with this driver!! I do my part – I deliver the load safely, and on-time. They better do their part and pay me on-time or else! If more O/O’s did as I do this industry would clean itself up overnight! Just for the record I think the entire trucking industry should be unionized!! I am totally for it, and would give up O/O status overnight to get union wages and benefits!!

  • gary d

    i know what you mean, i was a company driver grossed 50,000 last year but it wasnt worth it to me being gone for 2 weeks and only home 2 days, after all my meals and some layover my takehome was about 18, i took a local job at the ace hardware.

  • Herb Williams

    Oh, oh! Don’t say the “U” (Union) word! Half these knuckleheads out here see unions as a bad thing. They have bought into the rhetoric that all that ails the U.S. is the Unions and they are useful idiots in the one percent’s race to send the working class to the bottom. So sad!

  • Leanne Pooler

    We have been O/O for almost 18 years and have not really noticed a difference in pay in all these years. Honestly I would say being self employed in this business has consistently worsened. With high fuel prices, new regulations , and shippers not willing to raise rates we are beginning to wonder why we are still struggling to stay in this business.

  • Bruce Kolinski

    Owner Operators built the trucking industry in the United States. Period! O-O success sometimes evolved into large corporate concerns through the Golden Age of Trucking and then – – I guess unfortunately, some of those large concerns grew into wannabe monopolies, which then attracted monopoly supporting parasites called regulators. Regulation today, intentionally or not is regulating Owner-Operators out of existence and strangling the monopolized firms into horrible places for any independent person to work.

    Regulation forces large companies to hire malleable drones who are more receptive to micro-management and baby sitting, instead of the independent, motivated individuals they actually require. It’s not working of course, as trucking requires daily problem solving and the exercise of judgement, which steering wheel holders don’t possess.

    Unions are not the answer. Unions are just another form of monopoly bleeding drivers and replacing independence and free thought with conformance and collectivist mediocrity. Less government and less monopoly would help, but that’s not a likely scenario as we’re all socialists now, aren’t we?

    I’m not against regulation. I am against stupid regulation.

  • CCB

    A long time ago I realized truckers were their own worst enemy by running freight at too low of a margin. A large percentage simply do not know how to turn down cheap freight and it snowballs across the industry. The operators who are leveraged with too much debt will get scared and take cheap loads just to survive until the end of the rope eventually comes to take them out. Uship is a prime example of watching bad business men bid the freight cheaper and cheaper just to get the job. I know it is a free market place as it should be but people need to know their true costs and expect to make a decent wage for being a responsible, safe, and compliant owner/operator.

  • mn

    most of new owneroprater is new immigration ,it is the only job they can make a good money .I saw too much american give up .it is the job nobody like .if you can find otherjob,do’t do ia

  • greek9014

    last year my gross was $144,000.00 , I paid the girl that cleans my house just short of $10,000.00 , $64000.00 for fuel and upkeep ect , I had to pay tax on 70000.00 that come out to $18000.00 the the blood suckers in tax , I was out over night 58 days ran a total of 47,000 miles with a dry van . now on each trip i have any were from 10 to 30 houres of wating time before i can bring the empty tote tanks back some time they pump them out wile they aer in the van other times i pallet jack them to the back of the traler when they have to be taken out to a ship at ancor to be pumped out . all my loads are Haz-Mat and the coust per hr for the truck is $50.00 per hr with the first hr free . I run on my own authority , my tractor and traler are 1998 model year i had the tractor for ten years . this goes to show there is money to be made you just hace to find a nich .

  • 4btrucking

    There are so many diferent O/O’s to look at. The cheap haulers with the run down crap and the 10′ reefer (you know who youu are). And the guys who take care of customers and take care of their trucks. Be. It old or new. I don’t do cheap and I don’t pay myself a ridiculous wage. If the truck needs work on it I do it. Even if I don’t pay myself. I feel good about where I’m at as an O/O with my own authority. I don’t haul cheap and I don’t tell myself I “need” a load. Get a broker or a customer and take care of them and they’ll take care of you.

  • Snowball

    Well then ask all the unemployed union workers whose jobs have been sent overseas because the unions have priced their wages and benefits plum out of sight. Unions had a place a long time ago, but as for today they are no better than the blood sucking government.

  • Dave Nichols

    What is wrong with the union model is the union’s leadership. Just as with politicians, union leaders are re elected regardless how corrupt they are or how poorly they look after members. Instead of dues monies going to direct benefits, it goes to fat salaries, political payoffs, travel junkets and many other unneeded waste of your dues.

  • Dave Nichols

    If, as an owner/operator you cannot make post expense, pretax earnings equal to 28 to 34 dollars per hour, you are not doing well. Your trucks should be grossing at least $70 per hour for every hour on the log book.

  • bigred

    Although the future looks somewhat dimmer for us, we have managed to adjust with every Government regulation so far. I expect the same if e-logs, hours change now….Maybe those big cos. just might not like what they have tried to do now, nothing else, i guess we can run shorter and maybe take away some that freight that they rely on so much ,,Apparantly we are not gonna even try and make a stand against these new gov. regs, so I suppose we can look for shorter runs and quality on time runs.

  • fable raye

    After fuel, maintenance, other business expenses, paying 100% for our health care premiums, all the SS, and pay the quarterly taxes, we are no better off than when we were not O/O’s. We just have more headaches.


  • crispy critter

    Reading some of the comment’s. Everyone has an opinion about other owner operator’s, but it is the companies, shipper’s, and receiver’s who are using us for their own capital gain! They know that we will do whatever we need to do to survive. Ok some of us might not be as smart as other’s, but that is no reason for anybody to be taken advantage of. I have been in trucking for thirty years, and all I have ever seen is the driver, or owner operator get the short end of the stick, and fight/ argue with each other when it’s the industry that is screwing us. I have always wondered when will we all get it together?

  • crispy critter

    Sounds good, but do you really think that in this industry everyone can find a good broker, or a good customer to haul freight at a good rate?

  • sickofitall

    So what I’m hearing is allot of hard working men/women are busting their humps doing everything right and still are well below the poverty level…so drivers ask yourselves…what are you gonna do about it?

  • crispy critter

    A true owner/ operator has his own authority, and has the opportunity to acquire fuel, insurance, and maintenance at a discount if he negotiates it his-self. whereas a lease operator is contracted to a company that allows him to use their DOT number, and has all the discounts in place for there convenience. Having your own authority pay’s a lot more money, however it is a lot more work, and a lot more expensive! It also allow you all of the control! (YOU ARE THE BOSS). A lease operator is under the control of the company he/she is leased to!

  • Steven Charles

    People working off Uship are their own worst enemies. By taking cheap freight only tells them that they AND their business isn’t worth the quality of a higher price.

  • greek9014

    I haul fuel additives to bring fuel up to spec for the country it is being exported to . Some of what i haul is very nasty crap only a few of the refiners well let the people i run for treat the fuel as it is being loaded , most of the tome i go to alaunch service and the tree is done after the ship is loaded and moved up or down river on the mississippi or moved out to the gulf in texas or mississippi hell on one load i racked up 84 hours on a containment pad in a tank farm they were loading and treating a ship it took 260000 barrels of diesel . It cost the person buying the fuel $50.00 per hr for the truck and $30,000. a day wile the ship was docked for the ship and dock time on top of that the fuel was going to europe they require a certain number of 50 to 53 us fuel is at 47 however when you jack up the centain you also have to spike the lubricity and if going to a real cold country more CFI ( cold flow improver). . I run real old school sometime over gross and some time i have to play with the funny books , because the load has to be were it has to be and dam the DOT lol that is the reason i get paid like i do one time two landstar trucks pulled two loads they loaded 5hrs before me but they had to take a ten hour brake . that was the last load they well ever pull for these people if there were not problems with the pumps the ship would have loaded without them and then would have had to move away from the dock and it would have been around $75,000.00 to maKE IT RIGHT ,.

  • greek9014

    A lease operator is a company driver that gets stuck with all the bills LOL some outfits even set your top speed on your truck and the biggest screwing you can get is to get sucked into a lease purchase

  • Job Hopper

    I’ve been trucking for 30 years and an owner operator for the last 20.
    I’m still here bcause I learned to adapt. I watched many of my friends loose trucks, because the looked at the bigger runs because they thought the big check was the answer.
    My brother in law grossed $200,000 three years running and averaged $1.45 per mile and lost his truck because he had to have a fancy Pete with a 550 CAT and after 5 years his truck was just about shoot.
    I made $150,000 to $165,000 running within 100 air miles of my home with an average of $3.45 per mile loaded and empty.
    I did and still do run a 1998 9400 international with a 370 DDEC III and she gets me 6.5 mpg.
    In 2012 my profit was $129,000. 2011 was $123,000 and 2010 was $105,000.
    I don’t have an accountant. I take care of all of it. Doing this I know how my truck is doing and where to make the adjustments.
    This formula doesn’t work for everyone but by the grace of GOD this high school drop out isn’t doing to bad.

  • ilovdieselsmoke

    I have been in trucking since fourteen. I’m sixty now. I’ve worn all the hats, company driver, owner-operator, dispatcher, agent, mechanic, dock hand, union member, union organizer. Well lets see, back to working as an owner-operator. This is the worst I’ve ever seen as far as making a decent living in the trucking business. The only thing I see at the moment making substantial increases is our operational cost. Other than that the energy companies are doing quite well. I don’t see agents, brokers, or customers willing to make sure we’ve got our slice of the pie without daily demanding our fair share from them..It’s amazing how many of these so-called owner/op’s or independent truckers haul as cheap as they do. For the life of me I can’t figure that out. I must be doing something wrong? Containers in my opinion are at the bottom of the food chain but I see thousands of lease trucks running the HELL out of them every day. What’s surprising is most other forms of trucking are in a pretty tight race right behind those cheap steel cans. I run short haul with a twenty eight year old truck and an eighteen year old trailer. Nope, my trucks not junk and NO I don’t run cheap garbage just because I own older equipment. In fact I would run my equipment anywhere but I chose to stay within a two hundred mile radius of home. I mostly move only three maybe four flatbed loads per week, I pick and chose the ones that pay the best. I price all my loads in a fashion whereby I’ll make money to return empty however I do load at other locations back to my original area on a regular basis. That is for the same rates I run out on or I return back empty. Sorry, I don’t do back hauls, discounts, or favors.. I find each day no matter how cheap the load there’s always some idiot available in this business who’ll move it. This rate discount scenario plays out over and over while I shop my few customers or check out the local freight brokers. It’s amazing what customers, agents or brokers can get the majority of O/O’s to move their freight for. If the load sits there for a day or even a few hours later that same day the price usually increases to move it but these steering wheel business geniuses line up like vultures on roadkill and go to grabbing on everything like it’s their first date!. I bet seven out of ten can’t tell you what it cost per mile to operate their own damn truck. In fact I know they can’t! I’ve asked many of them this same question while waiting on a load. I’ve been at brokers locations when one of the newer breed is asked how much he can move a particular load for. The look on their face is priceless. Yep, priceless! They have no clue how to price it.. Sometimes I feel as if maybe I should kick them and pass along a hint. It’s an entirely different world out here today where many lease-drivers have been manipulated by their managers into believing “profit” is a dirty word.

    Is the owner-operator a dying breed?

    Yes the older breed is dying off and the faster we’re gone the better to make way for the new wave of Americas fortune 500 supply chain management who’s shopping strictly for transportation logistical discounts. Of course they expect the same level of service at the discounted price. I’m just hanging around now for the ride taking it a day at a time but I do feel for the ones who are just getting started.

  • farmboy

    Part of the increase in o/o numbers can be attributed to the CSA regime which makes finding a company job more difficult. Got to buy a truck to have a job. Also, big operators see the benefit of o/os taking on the debt and risk. Avoiding capitalizaton, risk, and CSA oversite, a large company need only concern itself with cash flow. O/O operations have to stand up. The union model is outdated. But, solidarity {pardon the socialist term] is needed in the o/o ranks. Trucking is the single most important industry in the American economy, and way of life. Consumerism being the driving force. If every o/o turned down one load offer every week, the rates would skyrocket.This week I drove off a pick up point when told it would be delayed for at least 6 hours. I told the shipper I’d be at a nearby truck stop and left my number. Then, I found a new load, told the dispatcher, and demanded detention pay. The dispatcher came up with the money, and the other truck got it too. It takes some bravdo sometimes to get the point across. Stepdecking is different from dry van or reefer, but you have to stand up for your self, win or loose. A good tool would be an internet sight where drivers could report their experiences with receivers and shippers. A small monthly fee could support the site. Knowing about problem recievers would give the option to turn down a load. Eventually , they would get the message. I gave up van work because of the poor attitudes in wharehouses.Flatbedding brings a driver to a better class of receiver. The point is– you can be treated right if you expect it.

  • Vocalone

    @google-88d1e7296bc4e1659ac1c300c7c8d6e4:disqus -If you don’t mind me asking, what rate do you charge per mile for dry van? This way I can understand what this article is all about when Max references increases of 3.8 % – .43 to .50 cpm. It’s good to throw percentages and numbers out, but in all the articles I ever read it never references a per mile rate -not even the average per mile rate. Thanks man. BTW -I loved your comment .

  • BunniRabbyt

    Tax breaks were one way the owner-operator was able to survive back in the day but those will probably be more attacked with the Gov. being broke. Then how do you make up the difference?. The only way I see how revenue will increase for the O/O is when companies will have to start paying their own drivers by the hour for every hour then those Big Box companies will have to raise their rates to compensate for this. Then O/O will have a chance to compete. Recently an O/O with his own authority came to me and said as long I can get $2 am mile I can pay my drivers and I will make it. I think he is doomed for failure and if he had to pay his drivers by the hour he would be out of business tommorrow. Ill preach for hourly pay for drivers till I die

  • Myron Lind

    The fact that O/Os continue to blame shippers for “not raising rates” and the “high cost of fuel” as reasons that they “can’t make any money” really demonstrates why they aren’t making any money in the first place. In a free market, two parties agree to exchange products and services for an agreed upon price. Why someone would agree to provide a service and not make a modest profit will doing it is beyond me. I came back to the industry in the pit of the recession in 2008. I make good money. Since then I have purchased two additional tractors and one additional trailer. Net income before depreciation is 70-80K. I am home every weekend. I run approximately 90K miles per year. Stop being a truck driver. Start running a business. Whatever you want to call yourself, you are in the driver’s seat and ultimately you are the one who determines how much money you will make.

  • DE_from_NC

    My fuel costs still bump 40-50% a week of gross revenue depending on whether or not the outbound destination ends in a good reload spot or higher than normal d/h. The first response at this comment for most will be “you’re hauling too cheap dumba** !!” Okay, get your own authority, walk into a shipper as a “one man/one truck show” and “demand $3 a mile” and watch him laugh and show you the door !! YOU HAVE TO PROVE YOURSELF FIRST !! With that said, I’ve also done an side by side “experiment” using the Udrove electronic log app on my phone comparing to paper logs. The results, and I run short haul mostly under 400 miles one direction, are that E- logs will cost me a minimum of one load per week, depending on where I go which would include traffic and load/unload times at a given p/u/ or destination, TWO LOADS PER WEEK were NOT UNCOMMON which equates to $1000-1200 per week which equates to $50-60k GROSS REVENUE LOSS PER YEAR if they force the issue !! And as far as purchasing replacement equipment, AND NO I DON’T KNOW THEM NOR AM I FRIENDS/FAMILY, if you can’t find a good used ’06 or older unit, I’d buy a glider from Fitzgerald in Crossville, TN, Pittsburgh Power in PA, or D & B in KY or FL. At least you won’t be on the side of the road waiting for a $4 a mile wrecker to tow you in for “warranty” work (it don’t pay the bills !!) for one of the 40-50 “smog censors” on your choked down “DEF truck” !!

  • roger singh

    I am owner operator since 1985 there are ups & downs but still doing okay 4 kids one in medical college one in law student one high & 4in jr high the new law for air regulation is going to hurt some but i do not understand why US is only regulating ( mexico/ and all south america & asia/ india pakistan and all others not doing any thing & do not care about any thing about POUlOTION OR AIR why US govt is pushing hard & hurting their own poeple

  • Steve_Ohio_O/O

    I know its none of my business, but what r u doing that’s paying $3.45? thanks

  • Ev

    How many truck owners have their own authority (true O/O) vs leasing their trucks to a company? I lease my truck to several small companies and have no negotiating power. All they have to do is “not find me a load” and keep me stuck for three days on the other side of the country and I’m willing to take anything to get back. Plus, I never really know what the price of the load is. The company says it keeps 25% of the price of the load, I’ve never seen the actual price. My gross ends up being $1.60 / mile. This is with several companies over the past five years. Their ‘fees’ ranged from 30% to 15% different percentages but my gross always ended up being in the same ballpark. For all I know the company may be getting $3/mile for the load…

    Having one’s own authority and a newer / more reliable truck is a huge fixed cost. It requires a lot of capital up front, and presents a high risk. Where are those brokers and shippers, where are the real prices? I can crunch my numbers, I know my operating costs, I deliver safely and on time, but where can I find the customer who needs this type of service and is willing to pay?

  • Joséandjenny Diaz

    It’s not about how you make, it’s ALL about how much you are able to keep! So pay went up… how much of it do you get to keep when tirea, fuel, maintenance, and everything else goes up faster than your pay? It’s all smoke and mirrors

  • TK48

    I am 67 and a true O/O with my own authority, last of a bunch of us who were leased to a Denver container hauler in the 90’s. All the others have either gone back to being company drivers or bailed out entirely. Only reasons I can stay at it are I do all my own mechanical work in a shop I own and I try to stay out of debt but I do not plan to ever buy another truck.

  • Mind Games

    At times I feel like throwing in the towel but I just can’t let these big corporate owners win and I will prevail for I am a freedom loving American and I will not allow fascist to take my country down and if I go down they WILL go down with me!!! I’ll make damn sure of that!!

  • Delbert Vaughn

    what are you talking about –crap–wake up. When you really consider everything we pay for, THERE IS NO MONEY IN TRUCKINGTODAY. You cannot make eno8ugh to replace equipment,etc. and have enough for home projects.

  • Delbert Vaughn

    You know that we are not going to try and fight the changes. Just keep taking their crap and put our head in the sand.

  • dotdoctor

    I hope your research is true. It is hard to believe that the O/O can be thriving in this economy with the myriad of new regulations ever pouring upon them.

    I know the O/Os in my terminal are holding on. We raised rates last April which translated raised to them out of their 72% of gross. We run all local work with the drivers home nights and weekends. I would say they average $50/hr to the truck over all. All of them have older equipment that has long been paid for but seeing their monthly maintenance reports, some months take a nice chunk of change to keep the truck rolling.

    Being a former small fleet owner and former O/O, I cannot image any of them doing this work and having a truck payment. The runs are too sporadic. We run hard then have dry spells. We have a good customer base with some big names but the steamships/rail simply do not have containers available at times and that directly affects our ability to do our job.

    As in all facets of trucks, there are so many external factors that contribute to the drivers’ and O/O’s bottom-line. Most trucking companies themselves are lucky to make a penny profit a mile after all experiences and accidents are paid out for the year. We just celebrated an accident free year. The contributing O/Os were rewarded for their hard work and efforts. It helped us all have a more profitable year.

  • Delbert Vaughn


  • Delbert Vaughn

    AMEN, you are right on.

  • Delbert Vaughn

    Y -E* A ME 2. I have been in the business 18 yrs. and the best I fond is $1.66.

  • Delbert Vaughn

    BOY ARE YOU CORRECT. I call these wore truckers. Their reasoning kills us trhat are trying to keep frieght rates up. the shipper thinks we are trying to screw him, but (the shipper SURELY GETS HIS PRICE FOR HIS PRODUSTS. sO WHYSHOULD’T WE GET OUR SIDE THE COIN.)

  • Cliff Downing

    This is complicated. While the government claims an annual inflation of 2.5%, the actual purchasing power of the dollar has dropped 35% in the last 5 years. So, on an overall cost basis, rates and compensation have not kept up with the decreasing value of the dollar. There are many thing, including fuel, that the government does not add into its inflation calculation. And one does have to think outside the box. I purchased a 2013 Freightliner glider truck that avoids all the initial and continuing operation costs associated with the emissions components of new engines. It is able to haul more at a substantially lower cost per mile of operation than comparable new production trucks. An one has to find that niche situation to operate in. It just isn’t your daddy’s trucking anymore.

  • Delbert Vaughn


  • Delbert Vaughn


  • Delbert Vaughn


  • Delbert Vaughn

    “Should be” is yhe KEY word here.

  • Delbert Vaughn


  • Delbert Vaughn

    YOU konow the industry will never do anything about what you are saying. Most of us are just are freight wores,and wii continue to take the crap and bitch about how bad it is while drinking the coffee and waiting for a load. strives to maintain an open forum for reader opinions. Click here to read our comment policy.