Follow these tips to find fulfilling, better-paying employment for the long haul.
The trucking job market is a runaway: 80,000 pounds without brakes, wide open down a 6-percent grade. Business is booming. Every year there’s more freight, even during “economic downturns.” Carriers have strong motivations for hiring: they need good drivers, and only rolling trucks make money. Drivers – especially with a couple years of experience – can pick and choose jobs.
The general lack of restraint causes trouble. All trades have bad employees, and no job is perfect. But some truck drivers see an unlimited job supply and get sloppy, physically and otherwise.
“A lot of these drivers don’t concern themselves with being concerned,” says Jim Gillman, owner-operator of Jam Gil Relocating Systems, a four-truck auto transport carrier in Vero Beach, Fla.
Jobs are so plentiful that some drivers lose respect for them: perform poorly and job hop, which causes problems and wastes money for all involved.
“Drivers lose so much money when they change jobs,” says Greg Iverson, recruiting manager at Koch Trucking in Minneapolis. “They don’t pay attention to that. Besides just the downtime, they lose medical coverage.”
Some carriers, like Koch, match drivers’ 401(k) contributions; these losses hurt. Also, most carriers withhold bonuses from drivers who leave even just a week before the checks come out.
Some trucking companies are even starting to pay more to guys who haven’t been hopping from job to job. Koch pays a few cents more per mile for drivers with five jobs or less in the past 10 years, Iverson says.
Besides higher pay, good drivers are more likely to earn mileage, safety and other bonuses.
So how do you find, get hired on at and stay with a good company? Start with these tips, and you’ll be a whole lot closer.
Be a good driver
Are drivers in short supply? Answers vary, but this is certain: good drivers are in short supply. Large and small trucking company owners, tired of pulling their hair out over this issue, seek to improve driver quality.
“We’ll park the trucks before we put any driver in one just to heat the seat,” Gillman says. “He’ll only cause all kinds of problems down the line.”
After 19 years of trucking, Gillman knows that drivers are a carrier’s backbone.
“They can make you, or they can break you, and it’s a lot easier for them to break you,” Gillman says. “It’s all about the drivers.”
As a small carrier, Gillman has to be careful. “Just one bad driver can ruin your business,” he says. “Large carriers can absorb $15,000 for a new engine, but that can really hurt a company this size.”
Gillman had one driver who ran a truck without coolant until the engine seized.
“He called from the side of the road and said, ‘I think something’s wrong with the truck,'” Gillman says. “He just didn’t want to stop.”
Large carriers need good drivers, too. With about 700 trucks, Koch Trucking is financially stronger than a small carrier, but Iverson is necessarily picky about who gets keys.
“Of course, we’re always looking for safety,” Iverson says. “We don’t want drivers who are backing into things. But we’re looking for guys who are pretty stable as opposed to job-hoppers.”
Gillman brags on his current drivers, but running a small fleet since 2000 has given him volumes of stories about driver monkey business: selling fuel, vanishing into thin air, destroying equipment, damaging freight or, even scarier, borrowing it.
“One driver parked in the yard, backed a car off the trailer and drove it to the house,” Gillman says. “I asked him where he got the car, and he said, ‘Off the trailer.'”
Ace the interview
Iverson’s initial interview with job-seeking drivers reveals their professionalism or lack of it.
“We don’t start with what we can do for them,” Iverson says. “We ask what they’re looking for.”
Iverson also looks for drivers who ask good questions, and a lot of them.
“Some guys call and don’t ask anything except what kind of trucks we have and how much they’re going to make per mile,” he says. “I tend to shy away from guys like that. They usually work for a little while and then say, ‘This isn’t what you told me.’
“If I get a guy at home, I’ll ask to speak with his wife, because women ask questions,” he says. “This catches the driver a little off guard, but his wife will ask in detail about take-home pay, home time, benefits and job description.”
A professional needs to have a deeper interest in and understanding of the industry. Learn about and show interest in the work and the lifestyle, not just salaries and trucks.
“If they’re not knowledgeable about the industry and what’s going on out there then we don’t bring them in,” Iverson says. “If they waffle a lot on their answers, we don’t bring them in.”
At Koch, Iverson and the drivers he recruits benefit from phone-interview screening.
“We rarely send anybody home from orientation,” he says. “The guys know what to expect when they get here, and we know what we’re getting.”
Iverson says some carriers hire anybody who calls. “They just grab them and bring them in,” he says. “That’s where the 120 percent driver turnover comes from.”
One way careful job screening pays off is in better carrier-driver relationships.
“Working with Jim has been great,” says Steve Ossolinski, co-driver to owner-operator Robert Arrington, who’s leased his Peterbilt 378 to Jam Gil Relocating. “He’s one of the best bosses I’ve ever had and one of the best people I’ve ever worked with, and that’s a fact.”
Know what you want
“You have to make a list of the things you want and don’t want, where you want to go and where you don’t want to go, and how much you want to make,” says Bonnie Kopisthke, who co-drives a Kenworth W900 with her husband, Jim, the truck’s owner. They’re from Bailey, Colo., and lease on with 65-truck carrier E & H Transport in Vista, Calif.
Jim Kopisthke says he continually checks the job market.
“The places you apply to will call your current employer,” he says. They call his boss, who then calls him.
“He asks if I’m looking for new work,” Jim Kopisthke says. “I tell him I’ve been looking for new work for years. But E & H is such an easy company to work for, and that makes it doggone hard to leave.”
Company size can be crucial to mutual employer-employee satisfaction. Most carriers won’t hire inexperienced drivers, so rookies have fewer options and commonly start with 5,000- or 10,000-truck mega-carriers. Employment options and pay increase with experience, a safe driving record and commitment to professionalism. Some drivers like the added security and resources offered by huge carriers; others like the more personal relationships found with smaller fleets.
“I’ve never been with any of the really large carriers,” Iverson says. “Drivers have told me over the phone that they tend to lose some of the personal touch.”
“It’s a small company, but it’s so personalized,” says Jam Gil driver Arrington, of Springfield, Mass. “I’m enjoying my job. I wake up every day and look forward to the work.
“When I’m on the side of the road and call for help, I get the owner or somebody who will help me. I don’t care if it’s 4 in the morning. He stays with me until the problem is solved.”
Mega-carriers have their perks, too, like sign-on bonuses, modern facilities with multi-bay repair shops, big spare-parts inventories, cafeterias and showers; more comprehensive benefits packages with various counseling and communication services for drivers and their families; and choices between over-the-road, regional, local and dedicated runs.
Act the part
Call it professionalism, character, attitude, upbringing or work ethic; drivers who have it make more money.
“Some guys show up late and they haven’t shaved or showered in a week, with holes in their jeans and a T-shirt with a pot leaf on it,” Gillman says. “They go flopping up the sidewalk with a cigarette hanging from their mouths, and they flip the cigarette into the customer’s bushes while he’s watching out the window. What kind of impression does that make?”
Gillman, like most trucking company owners, wants more from drivers than just years with steering wheels and car trailers.
“We hire for character as much as skills and experience,” Gillman says.
He knows that a driver’s true character will show in overall job motivation, knowledge and interest, or professionalism. “If a guy really wants to do a good, safe job, and he’s at the customer’s on time with the cars clean, and he’s clean and in uniform, to me, that person is worth his weight in gold,” Gillman says. “I’ll hire him, help him get his CDL and teach him this business.”
Companies are looking for dedication and cooperation, says Jim Kopisthke. “[That] means being safe and on time, but it also means cooperating with dispatchers,” he says. “Companies appreciate that, and it’s good for drivers, too. My dispatcher is a whole bunch nicer to me if I don’t give him a hard time.”
As an owner-operator, Kopisthke doesn’t have to take loads he doesn’t want, but company drivers often must take the loads on which they’re dispatched.
“As a new driver, are you willing to do what the dispatcher tells you to do?” Kopisthke asks. “Some of them can get pretty nasty. If you can’t get along with your dispatcher, most carriers will try to get you with another one because it does get stressful to fight all the time.”
Trucking is stressful. Frustration runs high, tempers flare and judgment gets skewed: a poor change-of-employment frame of mind.
“Drivers need to think twice before making a job change,” Iverson says. “Somebody made them mad. When they look back, it wasn’t that big of a slight.”
If you do quit in anger, calm down before searching for new work.
“A lot of guys call, and they’re so emotional,” Iverson says. “That’s something they need to think through before calling.”
“Don’t bring frustration with your current situation into an interview,” says Bonnie Kopisthke. “You don’t want that in there.”
10 Things you should know
- The industry. It’s not just a job; trucking is a demanding lifestyle. Days, weeks or even months away from home and family aren’t for everybody.
“New drivers just aren’t ready for that,” says owner-operator Jim Kopisthke of Bailey, Colo. “The excitement keeps them going for six months or a year, but after that, the loneliness really gets them.”
- Potential employers. They’ll haul over-the-road, regional, local or all three kinds of freight using owner-operators, company drivers or both in teams, solo or both. Their trucks will be old, new, fast, slow or all of the above. Their closest yard might be 10 or 1,000 miles from home. They might run you to death or leave you sitting. Maybe you can take the truck home on breaks, maybe not.
- Yourself. If you study trucking, drive for fun, relax during constant change, prefer solitude, sleep odd hours, independently handle unexpected challenges, mix well with strangers, understand and appreciate truck-driving skills and have a strong stomach and a stronger sense of humor, you might be a truck driver.
- Your needs. How much home time do you require? Some medicines and medical conditions require special clearance. Some jobs are 100 percent drop-and-hook; others have drivers loading and unloading. Ensure potential employers have what you need.
- Carrier size. Huge carriers offer anonymity, bountiful resources, benefits and facilities, more job choices and security, among other things. Small companies are like family.
- Job descriptions. Dry van, flatbed, refrigerated, hotshot and specialty carriers require different tasks. Dispatchers might inspect trucks for safety, compliance and cleanliness. Drivers might be restricted from any repairs to the truck or trailer. Learn a job’s basic requirements before applying.
- Your cost. Some companies pay for medical benefits, tolls, showers, uniforms and laundry, and direct-deposit paychecks; others don’t. Some reimburse for tools and spare parts; others don’t. Some companies disclose fees deducted from drivers’ paychecks; some don’t, and that might be illegal.
- When to evaluate. “I tell the new guys to give a job at least six months, so they can form relationships with dispatchers and figure out how the company runs,” Kopisthke says. “Then they’ll have some idea about the company.”
- Your figures. Confusing pay schedules might be a warning sign.
“You really have to watch these companies like a hawk,” Kopisthke says.
“One company offers 50 cents a mile, but they don’t tell you they’re going to take 26 cents of that as a per diem. You pay taxes on that.”
Some companies reduce pay for deadhead miles. Others determine trip mileage according to the “shortest route,” which might include roads on which big trucks cannot legally or safely run.
- Truck shows. Trucking companies recruit hard at truck shows. It’s an opportunity to meet several recruiters in one day and chat with other drivers.
“Most of our interviews are over the phone,” says Greg Iverson, recruiting manager at Koch Trucking in Minneapolis. He looks for drivers who ask lots of detailed questions that show a professional’s trucking interest and knowledge. Whether the interview is via phone or in person, be on time, alert and ready. If possible, don’t interview when angry or upset.
Write a list of benefits, pay and work you want. Listen! When speaking, don’t meander; keep answers focused on questions, but prepare and rehearse a comprehensive, 30-second response to “Tell me about yourself.” Set aside time; don’t be rushed or interrupted. Overly polite is much better than not polite enough. Questions lend the asker respect and subtle control of the interview.
Above all, be honest.
“Drivers need to be as straight as possible with us,” Iverson says. “Tell us what they’re looking for and what’s on their records. It’s probably not as bad as it seems, and we’re going to find out anyway.”
Ten additional in-person interview tips:
- Be clean and neat.
- Turn off your cell phone.
- Make eye contact.
- Get – and remember – names.
- Sit up straight, hands in lap, feet on floor.
- No fidgeting, eating, drinking or smoking.
- Speak clearly; no slang, and avoid “uhs” or “y’knows.”
- Give short but complete answers.
- “I don’t know” beats smoke-screen verbiage.