Showing Independents the Money

independent owner-operators get more money, incentives, routes, perks when there are driver shortages

Fleets are signing on more owner-operators, to quickly build desperately needed capacity in the face of rising holiday freight demand.

“We want to grow our capability to haul freight, but there’s just not an abundance of drivers out there to do that with company equipment,” Dale Lawless, the new director of recruiting for Mahomet, IL-based truckload carrier Roberson Transportation told Fleet Owner. “That’s why we are focusing on efforts to grow our owner-operator ranks – bringing them on is the fastest way we can build capacity.”

Roberson is sweetening the pot, offering independents up to 76% of gross revenue of every load they haul, which averages out to about $1.14 a mile, said Lawless. “We’re also giving them the fuel surcharge we collect as well– 13 cents a mile for every loaded mile they run – as well as incidentals, such as paying for base plates, permits, etc.,” he added.

Michael Paxton, chairman, president & CEO of Minneapolis, MN-based truckload operator Transport Corporation of America said recent losses of owner-operators are hurting its ability to maintain freight capacity.

“The industry’s major challenge continues to be that the tight driver hiring market and the limited availability of owner-operator capacity limits the amount of freight we are able to haul,” he said.

“At the end of the third quarter [this year], we had 151 fewer tractors on the road than at the end of the third quarter in 2003, which is due entirely to attrition in our independent contractor fleet,” Paxton said. “We have taken steps to increase our company-owned fleet and attract independent contractors through an expanded lease-to-own program, which we believe will increase our overall seated capacity.”

“High fuel prices and driver availability are the two main areas of risk we foresee that could affect profitability,” said Steve Russell, chairman & CEO of Indianapolis-based truckload conglomerate Celadon Group. “We expect competition for quality drivers to remain intense and that driver numbers will be the most substantial limiting factor on capacity growth [and] we are cautious about our continued ability to recruit and retain quality drivers in this tight driver market.”

Roberson’s Lawless added that offering a variety of pay and route packages is one way his company is trying to differentiate itself in the marketplace.

“We’re offering different pay packages based on our different operations, so we can meet a wider variety of needs,” he explained. “For example, our flatbed operation is national in scope and average length of haul is 1,000 miles, but our dry van operation is more regional – mainly focused east of I-35 in Illinois – with a shorter average length of haul of 800 miles. We’re also offering pay advances on loads and full settlement within 48 hours as a way to attract more owner-operators.”

Lawless said that Roberson is using those benefits as a way to appeal to the “business side” of the owner-operator’s lifestyle. “My belief is that they are businesspeople and need to partner with a carrier that has their business interests at heart,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

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