If you talk to the old-timers, they’ll tell you the times are changing. The old-timers in trucking know what it is like to struggle and survive without the help of new technology, without help of any kind.
While the younger generation of drivers may be looking for the storied independence of the highway, the old-timers see in their young counterparts a crop of drivers who can hold steering wheels and jam gears but not much else. And there is not much independence in being a victim when the first DOT check is down the road and you can’t find the slack adjuster. That’s what the old-timers say.
Drivers these days can pretty much depend on their fleet’s maintenance program to keep them moving or get them moving again when something goes awry. Today’s company driver doesn’t need the mechanical skills of an owner-operator whose bottom line may depend on his spending weekends at home doing oil changes and rotating tires.
But there is something sad about the loss of skills that is the preface to a much bigger loss – the loss of pride in a driver’s ability to get the job done in the face of adversity rather than making a cell phone call and crawling in the bunk until the repair truck shows up. It seems almost un-American to the old-timers. And it is.
This country needs people who can use a compass when the GPS breaks down, who can turn a wrench when the mechanic can’t make it until morning. The loss of this willingness to get out from behind the wheel and find an air leak, fix it and be gone long before a mechanic can get there is a real loss to America. And that is the true lament of the old-timer who knows anything can break and that when the computer we now depend on to make everything work gets fried, we will all be up the creek and there will be no paddle.
Electronic control modules have created dependability, but they have also created big problems when something does go wrong. The new knowledge is not the knowledge in the hands of drivers but of technicians far distant from the breakdown.
The old-timers, who still run their old Petes and Kenworths without benefit of software and distant technicians, are a dying breed. When they are gone, the entire industry will be left to the New Age driver whose skills need not go beyond holding the wheel. Machines will do everything from recording tire pressure to measuring levels of fatigue.
If a good truck driver is the driver who gets his load from A to B on time and without damage, who comes and goes constantly without complaining, who accepts the hardships of life on the road in order to do a job he loves, then the definition of good is being downgraded.
The definition of good is a very nebulous idea to many drivers. They do their job and do it again without bringing the idea of the strength of their work ethic or their skill level into consciousness. But it is there under the surface informing everything they do, from gear train management to paperwork, from backing into a hole the size of Aunt Tillie’s shoebox to lumping a load of watermelons.
As the industry heads into the new century, the first step toward maintaining a work force with integrity is to recognize that workers need to have a definition of good. They need a reason to take pride in their work. Trucking needs 80,000 new drivers a year for the next 10 years, according to expert estimates. If these drivers do not find a way to define themselves as “good” drivers, if they do not develop pride in their work, they will do the work poorly.
The credentials of the professional driver will soon undergo an upgrade. The first step will be the institution of new standards for the hazardous material endorsement this January. In the distant future, there also might well be a national drivers’ license and a national ID card. There will probably be a graduated CDL. This means that new drivers will go through a much longer process to get first seat status. If the basic skills of the professional are worth more because it takes more to get them, the image of the industry might improve. All that is left is to give the driver himself a sense that the job is worth doing well.