Carolyn Daniel started waiting tables at the Big Country Truck Stop on I-35 in Oklahoma when she was 27. Now, 23 years later, the Heiburger, Ala., resident commutes to a Petro Stopping Center near Bessemer every Thursday, Friday and Saturday to work in the Iron Skillet. “Truckers are good tippers,” Daniel says. “Working people and middle class people are the best. Rich people don’t tip good at all. The best tipper is the customer you pay the most attention to.” Paying attention to her trucker customers keeps her busy and on her feet because they like to talk. “They often come in discouraged or unhappy,” she says. “They tell me I brighten their day.”
Some call trucking a lonely profession, with miles of open road and no one to talk to but voices on Channel 19. Still, as isolated as the job seems, owner-operators routinely interact with dozens of people.
While many drivers may never meet the white collars who own large trucking companies or write the federal rules of the road, they do come in contact with various professionals whose compensation, skill sets and working conditions are sometimes comparable to those of truckers.
The average owner-operator makes just more than $40,000 a year, according to the 2004 Overdrive Owner-Operator Market Behavior Report. Company drivers aren’t too far behind, averaging $39,000, according to the National Survey of Driver Wages. By contrast, lumpers and truck stop waitresses earn much less, while a new truck dealer or the chief executive officer of a large carrier likely has a six-figure income.
Many non-trucking jobs in the industry offer better working conditions, lots of home time and – because the employees are not independent contractors – better benefits. Still, each has its own drawbacks that an owner-operator doesn’t have to put up with. And none can match the business independence and the pleasure of seeing the country that are the unique perks of the owner-operator.
BENEFITS: Health insurance, vacation and retirement benefits.
HOURS: 40 to 50 hours a week, possible shift work.
THE WORK: Often stressful. Requires diplomacy and multi-tasking to deal with many different people and problems.
JOB DEMAND: High.
A dispatcher is the carrier employee truckers interact with the most. As such, that person can have a bigger influence than pay or benefits on retaining drivers and owner-operators.
When Rodney Phipps, vice president of operations, hires dispatchers for the 400-truck carrier Texas Star Express, he generally looks for someone with limited dispatching experience but strong communication skills.
“Someone who is level-headed and follows rules well,” Phipps says. “I want to train them to do it the way we do it. If I hire a guy from J.B. Hunt or Swift, it’s hard to change their behavior. It’s just easier to grow our own.”
Dispatchers come from a variety of backgrounds and expertise. Their salaries also vary significantly, though some make much more than the drivers they manage.
“The salary range is between $40,000 to $75,000 (for medium to large trucking companies), depending upon the demands of the position,” says Don Jacobson, president of transportation headhunting firm LogiPros. “Sophistication and technology play an important part in the salary. In determining salary it is important to factor in whether the dispatcher deals with the drivers exclusively or also has communication with the customers.”
Dispatchers must have strong communication skills, the ability to multi-task and excellent computer and problem-solving skills, as well as strong routing and load-planning knowledge, Jacobson says. Dispatchers work in stressful environments that require quick thinking and diplomacy when dealing with disappointed drivers or customers.
Dispatchers at Texas Star Express typically work from 7:30 a.m. until 5:15 p.m., but they often stay as long as it takes to help their drivers, Phipps says. A lot of dispatchers know what it’s like to work in the cab of a truck – either because they were once drivers or because their carrier, like Texas Star Express, requires them to ride with drivers before they begin managing them.
In addition to managing as many as 100 drivers, many dispatchers must track freight, update delivery orders, manage data on computer systems, provide customer service, ensure the accuracy of trip sheets, freight bills and other paperwork, and work flexible hours.
TRUCK STOP WAITRESS
SALARY: $11,720 to $23,050 ($15,780 average).
BENEFITS: Health insurance and retirement at some chains.
HOURS: 35 to 40 hours a week, possible shift work.
THE WORK: On your feet all day. Often stressful.
JOB DEMAND: Moderate.
At 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday, the dining room of the Iron Skillet restaurant at Exit 100 on I-20/59, west of Birmingham, Ala., is crowded. Leo Ivy, a First Fleet company driver enjoying a quick bite in a booth, says he enjoys this Petro Stopping Center for the food and the service. “They’re really good here,” he says.
Part of the reason is Carolyn Daniel, a waitress who has worked there for nine years. “Truck drivers are great to work with,” she says as she dashes around the restaurant with a coffee pot in one hand and a smile on her face.
James Weaver, manager of the Iron Skillet in Las Vegas, says demand for waitresses is strong everywhere, but nowhere more than in his city. He competes for workers with hundreds of restaurants and casinos, which often pay more. But Weaver says a hard-working truck stop waitress on the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift can make a lot of money in tips in just a few hours.
“We have a couple of waitresses who work at several restaurants, ours and others, and they only get five or seven tables at those places,” Weaver says. “Here they get 10 or 12 tables, and the tips are better. They can make good money if they work hard at it.”
Although industry-specific statistics are hard to come by, several truck stop chains say a busy waitress can generate between $90 and $130 in tips during a single shift. That can push a salary far above the official government-tabulated average of about $16,000.
Truckers don’t necessarily tip better than other customers, but they occasionally surprise even veteran waitresses with their generosity. “You have drivers who come in here to kill some time for their log books and they can sit here for eight hours and only order coffee. Then they leave a $5 tip,” Daniel says. “Regular customers will tip $20 sometimes.”
The job is demanding. Waitresses and waiters are on their feet the entire shift, carrying food-laden trays, pushing heavy carts and carrying hot pitchers of coffee – all with a smile. “They’re on the go all the time,” Weaver says.
In cities such as Las Vegas, lucrative careers and better benefits sometimes draw waitresses away from truck stops. In rural areas and small towns, waitresses such as Carolyn Daniel might work for years at the same place, helping build a loyal customer base.
SALARY: $18,000 to $23,000.
BENEFITS: Few, but can include medical care, workers’ compensation insurance, etc.
HOURS: 40 a week, plus seasonal overtime.
THE WORK: Heavy lifting, labor-intensive, no qualifications other than normal physical strength.
JOB DEMAND: High.
When Dell Hamilton started his first company 15 years ago, lumpers were the scourge of the industry, often coercing bribes out of truckers or refusing to let drivers unload trucks at docks they controlled. Freelance lumpers are still around, but Hamilton says the lumping market is better managed now, with companies employing loaders full time and offering insurance and benefits.
“Fifteen years ago, there were only five unloading services in the country,” says Hamilton, principal owner of Crusader Services. The Tennessee-based unloading service has 260 employees in five states. As organized services have expanded, freelance lumpers have become full-time employees at many of the companies.
Lumpers come from the same general labor pool as construction workers and seasonal truck drivers. Some come from the service industry and from fast-food restaurants. Hamilton says the work force has a strong Hispanic presence.
“People can work a labor job without any real experience and even without ability to read well and make $18,000 to $23,000 a year unloading,” he says.
Lumping, like trucking, has its seasonal peaks – typically August to mid-December, when the retail season is strong.
Turnover at unloading companies is high, about 40 percent, but still lower than the average for drivers. Demand is also high, and the rewards for hard workers can be great. “When they come to work, they typically have to double their speed,” Hamilton says. “Then, they’ll start making their money. We’ve got guys that are averaging $25 an hour.” Others, working slowly under a piecemeal rate, “barely make minimum wage.”
Whether lumping is piecemeal depends on the city and the commodity, and independent contractors still dominate some docks. But for those who work for loading services, pay is consistent, and limited benefits are available. Crusader Services, for example, offers its employees health insurance. The coverage isn’t extensive, Hamilton admits, but it’s better than what most freight handlers have access to.
His freight handlers also get something unloaders traditionally have lacked: workers’ compensation insurance. The company’s 260 employees are covered if they’re injured on the job. But it’s also one of the reasons the company’s services, and those of its competitors, have been going up in price. Nationally, workers’ compensation insurance premiums are on the rise. Trucking companies are feeling the pinch with their insurance carriers, and so are loading and warehousing companies.
SALARY: $26,510 to $68,160 ($45,560 average)
BENEFITS: Retirement and health insurance typically above average. Paid training. Job stability. Paid
vacation. Overtime pay available.
HOURS: 40 a week, plus overtime; possible shift work
THE WORK: Lots of driving, some risk. Relocation
often required for advancement. Hiring process can
take a year.
JOB DEMAND: High.
Help wanted: Must be willing to work long hours at odd times of the day and night. Must be comfortable operating around traffic. Able to drive thousands of miles a week.
Those shared job qualifications make truckers and state troopers kindred spirits, even if the two professions are often at odds, says Maj. Ernie Duarte, a spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol.
“We also have restrictions on how long we can work, just like truck drivers,” Duarte says. “We eat at the same restaurants, and we provide assistance to one another on the CBs.”
Like truckers, troopers are in demand. Most states have a major shortage – although this is due as much to underfunding as to lack of qualified applicants.
Still, Duarte says out of every 1,000 applicants, only a couple will become part of the state patrol.
“Our employees have to pass a general knowledge test before they can even get into the hiring process,” Duarte says. “Then they have to pass a physical, an agility test, a psychological screening and, finally, a polygraph examination. Any arrests or convictions can derail an applicant, especially for drinking and driving. That process can take as long as a year, and for those that are hired, there’s a lengthy trip to police academy.”
State patrols also compete with other law enforcement agencies that have higher starting salaries and better benefits. “If you are looking to come join our staff, you have to be interested in something other than money,” Duarte says.
Most troopers get home to their families regularly and have better benefits and retirement plans than truckers. On the down side, troopers face the risks common to all law enforcement and often have to move around the state to advance professionally.
Because they work for state governments, troopers’ jobs tend to be more stable than truckers’, unless budgetary problems arise. Even then, long-term employees tend to be retained.
Troopers’ duties are more consistent than those of other law enforcement positions. Most of the work concerns traffic and traffic accidents, as opposed to the crimes, traffic violations and domestic disputes that police and sheriff’s deputies deal with.
And as with truck drivers, very little time is spent in an office. “You have to have a need for change and excitement to do this job,” Duarte says. “Your next call may be an emergency. You may save someone’s life.”
SALARY: $22,550 to $52,310 (average, $35,930).
BENEFITS: Retirement and health insurance. Paid training. Job stability. Paid vacation and overtime available.
Hours: 40 a week, plus overtime.
Work conditions: Job is often hot and dirty and always physically demanding. Requires experience and typically a degree or certification.
Job demand: Extremely high.
On a rainy Monday in December, Michael Upton is up to his elbows repairing a truck at a travel center south of Bessemer, Ala. Sunday and Monday are typically off days for the Petro Lube Center diesel technician, but not this week.
“There’s a lot of demand for diesel mechanics right now,” Upton says. “We’re just swamped with work.”
While trucking companies are scrambling to fill truck seats by offering raises and signing bonuses, truck stops, dealerships and carriers are struggling to fill their repair bays with competent mechanics.
Pat Brown, lube manager for a Petro Stopping Center in Ocala, Fla., says he could run his shop three shifts a day – if he could find enough mechanics. While the job is demanding, the pay is solid, and the hours are good. “Unfortunately, there’s not a big labor pool out there with a great deal of experience,” Brown says. “There’s such a vacuum for the position of truck mechanic. It’s pretty disheartening.”
Truck stops, in particular, are looking for skilled mechanics with a good attitude who can interact well with truckers. The position is often filled by someone who has been a trucker at some point.
That’s true of Upton, who drove for companies in Tennessee and Alabama before returning to the mechanic’s job he loves. Life on the road wasn’t for him, he says, “but the time I spent in the seat helped me most understand my job.”
Most truck stop shops also employ lube technicians. Their hours and working conditions are similar to mechanics’, but the qualifications are lower, so the pay is less. “Most of the time we train lube techs on the job,” Brown says.
Both positions require a great deal of physical work in often dirty, hot conditions. “The summers can get pretty brutal here in Florida,” Brown says. “It’s hot and humid, and then you get under a truck radiating 200 degrees. You’ve got to love what you do.”
Most owner-operators would agree: Loving what you do is the most important part of the job.
*Salary ranges, working conditions and benefits for these five jobs come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and national job listing websites. Actual salaries vary considerably by region, company size and other factors. For example, dispatcher salaries range considerably, based on education, level of interaction with customers and size of fleet.