Trucks at Work
The worth of work

The worth of work

There’s nothing wrong with hard work or a dirty job. I can’t tell you how many millionaires I’ve met who are covered in crap.” –Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” TV series, from an interview with Spirit magazine.

We talk a good game about the innovations and revolutions going on in trucking today: about pollution-free trucks, safety technologies, real-time communication and data transfer, you name it.

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What often gets lost in all of this, though, is the truck driver – the man or woman expected to pilot such high-tech modern marvels across the country or across town, wending their way through crowded streets, over steep mountain grades, through snow, ice, rain, and blistering heat.

The truck driver in a lot of ways gets a bad rap these days – which, sad to say, is pretty much how the job’s been viewed over the last several decades. The U.S. Department of Labor considers driving a big rig “unskilled labor” and the job’s pay is structured along those lines.

A truck driver faces a 14 hour work day – 11 behind the wheel, three spent loading and unloading – with no overtime, and those house run consecutively, so taking a break to rest or have lunch impacts their total potential mileage and thus their paycheck.

Many drivers don’t have health insurance – the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), for one, reports that some 30% of its membership can’t afford it – putting even more fiscal pressures upon them and their families.

To top it all off, more rules are being laid upon the driving position – the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Comprehensive Safety Analysis (CSA) 2010 program is the latest and greatest effort in this arena – in an effort to weed out the “bad apples” with poor driving records and high accident rates. Some in the industry believe CSA 2010 could effectively slice 20% out of the current truck driver population.

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So what we’re left with is an ever-more highly regulated job with low pay and long hours – and we haven’t even begun to factor in the negative view of truckers that permeates the popular culture.

Now, yes, there are plenty of driver positions that pay well with decent hours – private fleets and LTL carriers come to mind – but these are still not positions you see people putting at the top of their job “wish list” by any stretch of the imagination.

I remember talking to J.D. Morrissette with Interstate Van Lines (which is conveniently based just up the road from me in Springfield, VA) several years ago about how tough it’s become to find people willing to not just become truck drivers, but willing to be exceptional at it.

“Finding drivers and helpers is getting more and more difficult,” he told me. “We don’t get the numbers of new entrants at a young age that we used to get. And locally for us it’s even harder, as our home county of Fairfax, VA, is very affluent and unemployment is low, so finding people willing to go into moving and storage as is getting harder.”

Moreover, he added, with high expectations of excellence in academics, sports, and extracurricular activities for youngsters doesn’t translate into trucking careers in the minds of most parents these days. “It all comes back to this: ‘Did we raise our kids to be truck drivers?” Morrissette noted.

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The problem is, these are the qualities NEEDED in trucking. With all the high tech components packed into today’s big rigs, with all the demands for safety, on-time delivery, and cargo integrity placed on drivers, it should be a job that attracts some of the best and brightest out there. Yet it very rarely does.

Of all people, Mike Rowe – host of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs TV series – brought this issue home to me. In an interview with Spirit magazine, he talked about how many types of work are being devalued today, and how that’s affecting our nation. Though he didn’t talk about truckers, directly, I think you’ll see that job description incorporated in his words.

“[My grandfather] was a master plumber, carpenter, architect and stonemason by the time he was 30. He showed a commitment to the skilled trades; an ability to put anything together,” Rowe said. “As a result, he was the hero of his community. Carl Knobel was the guy you called to fix anything.”

But today, Rowe said, if Knobel were walking around, he would be invisible. “That is the problem,” he explained. “We know who Kelly Clarkson is; we know who Michael Jackson’s doctor was. But the guys like my grandfather who used to be on every block who used to be everywhere, omnipresent, a solution on every block … when fixing things was not only celebrated and revered, they’re disparaged today or looked down on.”

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Rowe added, though, that nobody follows their passion into “dirty jobs,” angling to work in waste water treatment or do window washing. “You do it because you’re hungry and you’ve found a job nobody else wants to do. And then you do it well, with a good attitude, with an entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “The blind spot that we have right now, socially, is that we don’t look at entrepreneurs and associate them with dirt. We associate them with private jets. And that’s dangerous fiction.”

He pointed to the ongoing effort to fund “shovel-ready” construction projects with federal stimulus funds as an example of why this “fiction” is so troublesome. “I hear Washington D.C. promising 3 million or 4 million ‘shovel-ready’ jobs and I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great is ‘shovel-ready’ was something people aspired to?’” Rowe noted. “You’re trying to create jobs that have been systematically demeaned for two generations ... It’s going to be a tough sell.”

Likewise, it’ll take some time before encourage someone to drive a truck for a living won’t be a “tough sell” either.