Couples command attention as drivers

After 25 years in the trucking industry, Marvin Van Kampen has just about seen and done it all, from long-haul truck driving to running his own fleet. He’s also a model of success in an industry that has been hard hit by high fuel prices, a shortage of drivers, and slack freight demand. One of the reasons he cites that continued success, however, is a little unusual – the heavy use of husband and

After 25 years in the trucking industry, Marvin Van Kampen has just about seen and done it all, from long-haul truck driving to running his own fleet. He’s also a model of success in an industry that has been hard hit by high fuel prices, a shortage of drivers, and slack freight demand. One of the reasons he cites that continued success, however, is a little unusual – the heavy use of husband and wife driving teams.

“I started using team drivers to begin with because I hauled newsprint, which has to be there on time,” says Van Kampen, who founded his company, M.C. Van Kampen Trucking in Grand Rapids, MI, in 1977. “I tried putting two guys together on teams but it just didn’t work. Then I started using husband and wife teams, and that made all the difference.”

Van Kampen says that husband and wife teams are a critical factor in his business (he employs 65 of them), and not just because he run expedited freight from Michigan to the West Coast and back overnight. For starters, husband and wife teams want to be together, so the long hours required out on the road are not as strong a negative that many solo drivers believe it is. Second, both paychecks are going to the same family, so their earning potential is much higher – about $90,000 a year, versus the $42,000 a typical solo driver earns in the trucking industry.

“A business can't grow without quality drivers,” he says. “We have found husband-wife teams to be among the best drivers out there, and it's my job to keep them happy. Putting them in a premium vehicle, and spec'ing it like I'll drive it myself, is the best way to do that.

Van Kampen adds that he runs his fleet on a set schedule, so the teams know where they are going for the next five days. He also buys high-end trucks loaded with driver amenities and trades them in every three years, so the teams are always in new equipment. The teams also get a full medical plan and four weeks off a year.

The end result is that Van Kampen’s trucking company has less than 2% yearly driver turnover in an industry where turnover of 100% or more is not uncommon. He also used to have a waiting list of husband and wife teams that wanted to join his company, though poor economic conditions over the last two years have reduced that list to zero.

“It’s tough out there now, the toughest I’ve ever seen,” he says. “Fuel prices have spiked so much, you don’t know what the price will be on any given day. Shippers are practically dictating rates while operating costs, like truck insurance and health insurance, keep rising. But we’ll keep at it.”

On the road

Finding drivers has been a growing problem for the trucking industry for many years, and it is a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon. Currently, the trucking industry is short an estimated 80,000 drivers, drivers needed to keep up with burgeoning freight transport demand. However, the industry is only hiring 34,000 new drivers per year, and 32,000 of them, over 80%, of the new drivers hired every year are the result of churning: drivers from one part of the industry moving to fill empty seats in another sector.

That rapid musical chair movement of drivers from company to company is extremely costly, too. According to a 1993 study conducted by the American Trucking Assns. with the North Dakota State University, recruiting and training a driver costs an average of $8,000 per individual – money that is lost when the driver leaves the company.

Yet the study doesn’t believe turnover is a problem based on the number of warm bodies available. “There is not a shortage of drivers – there is a lack of human resource strategies to take advantage of the available pool,” the report concluded.

The team effect

While teams are rare among truck drivers – making up less than 2% of the overall driver population – they do have distinct advantages over their solo counterparts. For starters, teams can put more consecutive hours on the road than a solo driver, which is critical for expedited delivery freight – whether it’s a company team or owner-operator doing the driving, says Richard Kershman.

“If you are going to be a solo independent driver, you need to factor in the down time required by hours-of-service regulations, so you need to run shorter lanes,” says Kershman, an owner-operator out of Oklahoma City, OK. “If you are going to drive as part of a team – such as a husband-wife duo – then you need to run coast-to-coast to get the best paying freight.”

Kershamn drives with his wife, Martha, as a husband and wife due. They’ve been fully independent since 1994, driving as Chino Trucking, hauling produce cross-country, mostly from Richmond, VA, to Salinas, CA., and back, working non-stop from mid-April to November. Then they haul Christmas trees out of Portland, OR, to Texas for November through December, taking a break from January through March.

Because expedited delivery is a premium service, teams can usually make far more than the average solo driver. Schneider National out of Green Bay, WI, offers teams a 3-cents per mile premium. Celadon Trucking of Indianapolis, IN, offers teams 44-cents per mile with a 2-cent per mile bonus if they run more than 20,000 miles in a month. To qualify for team pay, however, Celadon requires them to run over 15,000 miles per month.

Covenant Transport of Chattanooga, TN, offers teams 36 cents to 46 cents per mile, compared to 25 cents to 31 cents per mile for solo drivers. When freight demand is “heavy,” as Covenant puts it, teams can run 225,000 miles on average per year, earning $125,000.

Yet team drivers – especially if they are husband and wife – have to live for long stretches in cramped quarters, which means some adjustments are in order. William and Bonnie White, a husband and wife team who drive for Cardinal Logistics Management, say living in a the confined space of truck for long periods “taught us we had to focus on being gentle to each other.

“When you spend 20 hours a day driving, you have to respect each other and divide up the routines,” says Bonnie White , who has been driving with her husband since 1994. “He takes care of the heavy stuff – fueling the truck, dropping and hitching the trailer – and I take care of the load calls and paperwork.” She adds that as a husband and wife team spouses must respect each other 100% of the time, or it will hard to live in the "cube," as she calls the truck’s sleeper berth.

“Each of us knows the other’s driving capabilities,” says William White. “It’s necessary to be aware of that. When one of us hits that ‘brick wall’ at midnight and can no longer stay awake, we don’t try and push it – we stop and get our rest.” Tim Batross, a district manager at Cardinal, says he rarely has any problems with husband and wife teams because they typically understand better than most how to work together to get the job done. “There’s that continuation of the in-home relationship that helps them, in my opinion, be more responsible,” he says, noting that Cardinal has 8 husband and wife teams in its driver corps.

Equipment

For husband and wife teams, the truck itself can become a very important piece of the job. Van Kampen believes that extra amenities are crucial for couples on the road, as they can spend more time in those trucks than in their own homes.

His 65 husband and wife teams, which primarily transport furniture and produce, average 220,000 miles per year so, “it’s the little things are what keep them comfortable in the middle of a 5,000-mile run. The little things are big things when you're out there for a few weeks,” he says.

Van Kampen primarily uses W900 Kenworth sleepers, spec’ed with tilt wheels, cruise control and Kenworth’s Diamond VIT interior. The cabs are equipped with an air-ride system and also feature air-ride seats, with the sleepers unfolding into bunk beds. He notes, however, that his husband and wife teams are very particular about their seats and sometimes will swap out the factory-provided seats with ones of their own. “A lot of them buy their own seats and I say, “sure – whatever makes you happy,’” says Van Kampen.

His new 2001 Kenworth W900L models – 30 arrive this year and 50 in 2002 – have easier-to-reach dash controls and Eaton’s Fuller AutoShift transmission, which can be set for automatic or manual use. “Women prefer automatic transmissions, men don’t,” Van Kampen says. “Now both have it their way.”

So, while the trucking industry continues to feel the pinch of tough economic times, Van Kampen believes his driver corps of husband and wife teams will help him stay ahead of the pack.

“It’s dog eat dog out there now,” he says. “To get a load somewhere on time, we sometimes have to eat the cost of extra fuel and out-of-route miles. But our trucks are always on time – and that’s because if my driver’s can find a way to do it. They will. They make the difference.”

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