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What's a Driver Worth?

by Jim Park

Is Barbara Walters worth her $10 million salary? How about Katie Couric, the latest tele-journalist to break the 10-mill mark? Oprah Winnfrey pulls down $150 million a year, Barbara Streisand earns about $30,000 A DAY, Shania Twain's bank account swelled by $48 million last year while CĂ©line Dion carted home a paltry $43 million. Are they worth it?

Nobody is actually worth that kind of money... unless the party who's digging deep for the big payout expects a substantial return on the investment. These folks, and many more of their 'overpaid' counterparts, are just tapping the market for all it will bear. As long as somebody's willing to pay that kind of dough, why not get to the trough first?

These and other celebrity-types do have a certain market value. They have something to offer that other people are willing to pay for. Good for them.

The leadership ranks of many large and successful corporations seem able to command some pretty substantial salaries as well. We're talking about the folks were once young bucks with nothing but a degree and a bunch of bright ideas. They put those ideas into practice and proved themselves successful. They've managed to establish their market value as well. As long as their shareholders, like the celebrity fans, believe they're getting value for their money, the six- and seven-figure salaries will keep flowing.

But down here in the trenches, it's a bit harder to put an accurate value on the services guys like you perform.

In baseball, a pitcher who consistently strikes out more batters is worth more than a mediocre hurler who'll win a few and lose a few. That's where skill, dedication and a good agent pay off. It's the law of supply and demand.

Trucking, too, demands its share of skill and dedication. But it's not as if driver "A" can get the load there any faster than driver "B" or do the job substantially better, really. Years of safe driving could be equated to a pitcher with an excellent earned run average. But it usually isn't. Maybe we need agents? I digress.

I recently came across the results of a survey conducted last fall by Ipsos-Reid for the Royal Bank of Canada that queried 3,006 students at 20 universities and colleges as to what they expected to be earning upon graduation, and then after having spent five years in their chosen field.

The students who responded to the Ipsos-Reid survey said they expected to walk out of university and into a job with an annual salary of $46,000. For the folks who had studied a specialty such as commerce or engineering, the figure was a little higher: $57,000. Expectations for their income after five years in the workforce averaged $68,000 among undergraduates and $81,000 among graduate students.

That got me to thinking... What can (or should) a trucker expect from his or her career?

We thought it would be revealing to pose a similar question to the players in this industry, so we put together a small and informal survey of highwaySTAR readers to find out. We posed four questions.

  1. What attracted you to a career as a driver or owner-op?
  2. Using an annual salary, how much do you think a safe and professional driver should be earning after five years in the business?
  3. Is trucking an attractive career option? If not, what needs to change and how can those changes be made?
  4. What makes a truck driver "worth his pay?"

We sent out about 100 questionnaires to our website-update subscribers and got 44 back.

One intriguing trend surfaced in the Ipsos-Reid poll: they found that 81 per cent of those polled said they were most attracted to "interesting" vocations, while only 19 per cent stated that high pay was their top priority. Which is the crux of the reason we decided to pose a similar question here.

Everybody knows that millionaire truck drivers are harder to find than a good cup of coffee in the US of A. So if money wasn't the big draw, then it must be the fact the job is just so darn much fun. But money does matter, and you told us as much.

Bottom Line or Middle Ground?

The average annual salary suggestion after five years in the business, according to our readers, was $61,750. Responses varied from a low of "$40,000 to $45,000" to a high of $85,000. The question didn't require the respondents to specify if the figure applied to company drivers or owner-operators, but I think it's safe to say they meant a company driver's pay.

Donald J. Brunelle, a retired miner from Nova Scotia said $80,000 to $85,000 would be reasonable if one was to consider all the hours spent on the job and the skills that go with it.

Another driver, Jeff Jones from Corbeil, Ont., suggested that 40-45 grand should top out a safe drivers salary after five years, but he added, "If you're expecting 60 grand, you'll need another 10 years of "safe and courteous" driving under your belt."

Given the varying degrees of what one might consider relative prosperity across Canada, one respondent decided to frame his answer by saying the income should be sufficient to support a family and provide for a modest cache of "luxuries."

Gerry Wittenberg, a driver with more than 35 years under his belt now running between Abbotsford and Calgary, said that when he started trucking in 1965 he was earning a nickle a mile. "It was damn good money, then," he says. "We could buy a house, a decent car, and have enough money left over to have a few beers when we wanted to."

In 1972, Wittenberg said he earned $21,000 driving for a union carrier in B.C., and in September of 1973, he bought a new two-bedroom subdivision tract house for $23,500.

"If you correlate those two numbers I should be able to buy a new house now for $45,000 or my employer should be paying me $175,000 per year to drive his truck," Wittenberg noted.

In his final analysis, Wittenberg suggested that today's five-year driver should be earning around $75,000 with annual increases based on the cost of living. "A qualified professional driver should be able to support his family, live in a decent house, drive a decent vehicle, and have enough left to send his kids to university or to at least take a reasonable vacation," he stated. "A driver should be able to support his family without having his spouse/partner go out to work as well."

Another of the drivers who took the time to respond to our informal survey was Greg Swain. Swain is a thoughtful and articulate fellow who has already had two stories published in highwaySTAR. He says that it wouldn't be unreasonable for a safe professional driver to be earning $60,000 a year or more after five years.

"Ironically," he adds. "That's approximately the same amount of time it would take to obtain a Masters degree."

What's in a Number?

Let's look at the figure we arrived at as our average expected (hoped for) earnings at the five-year mark in a driver's career. Is a driver worth $61,750? Is that "good money? Well, it's better than 40 grand to be sure, but it's not that great when you consider some of the skills involved or the time spent on the job in long-haul trucking.

In hours alone, a driver would log about 3500 hours at 70 hrs/week in a 50-week year. That works out to $17.64/hour. Realistically though, a driver probably "works" about 90 hours a week. That works out to 4500 hours/year on the job for an hourly wage of $13.72/hour. Still respectable, but...

Philip Kuffner thinks there a lot of intangible aspects to a trucker's duties that make it singularly difficult to define what the job should be worth. "Customer service, neat, clean appearance and the ability to treat others including DOT and police officers with respect is only a small part of it all," he says. "Safety is a big issue, as is skill with the equipment and the demands of driving in so many different environments."

Add to that the risk of personal injury, the seemingly endless string of life and death decisions that a driver makes each hour of the day, and the sacrifice a driver makes in terms of his home life and you've written yourself a pretty intimidating job description.

Even a $60,000 paycheque comes with a pretty steep price tag. "That amount will not entirely compensate for the time (and money) a driver spends away from home on the road," Swain says. "There will always be certain sacrifices for the long-haul trucker, but family life should not have to be one of them."

Pam Wilkinson, a gutsy lady from Winnipeg suggested we twist our survey question around and inquire what a carrier would be willing to pay a 27-year, 3.5 million-mile accident-free driver.

"What would a driver of that caliber be worth just in terms of minimized insurance risks?" she asks, rightly.

For the record, Wilkinson says a driver with the above mentioned qualifications should be earning at least $75,000 a year with benefits, a pension plan and several weeks of paid vacation.

How do you pump all those intangibles into some sort of costing model and expect it to produce a realistic answer? You can't, obviously, but like the Twains and Walters of the world, there's some market value to a particular set of skills. Unfortunately, the laws of supply and demand seem to work in some backward and perverse way in this business. As long as somebody is prepared to work for less than the next guy, the low price becomes the bench mark.

You can laugh all you want at the obscene salaries of the some of our so-called celebrity elite, but they've managed to convince at least a few people that they're worth the money they earning.

A Short Climb to the Top

That five-year time frame we referred to, as did the Ipsos-Reid survey, is a critical point in many careers. As Swain suggested, it takes about five years to earn a Masters degree. At five years, the guy with the degree is just leaping out of the starting gate. For many truckers, the accumulated experience of five years safe driving will land you some of the best jobs this industry has to offer. But where do you go from there?

No wonder it's hard to convince today's youth that trucking is an attractive career option. By age 30 with five years of education and five years in the workforce, one fellow's career path is just beginning to blossom. The other's has peaked and has started to wither on the vine.

Trucking hasn't yet developed a merit-based pay scheme. Unlike many other professionals -in the true sense of the word- a trucker can't market himself to a carrier based on his performance record or his accumulated skills. And that's unfortunate.

But even if we could revamp the pay structure, it's difficult to imagine a shipper paying a premium just to have trucking's equivalent to Barbra Walters dragging their freight down the street.

But money isn't everything. Forty-three per cent of the respondents to the Ipsos-Reid survey indicated they aspire to be executives at large companies, while a far greater number, seventy per cent, said they want regular working hours to balance work-life interests.

In his analysis of the poll, senior vice-president at Ipsos-Reid, John Wright, concluded that money alone isn't enough to attract today's students to companies. "Competitive salaries and benefits are seen to be the price of entry for companies actively recruiting from campuses. They are now just a foundation for a compensation package that only begins to address employers' growing concern about the scarcity of skilled talent," he said.

Next month, we'll continue this series of feature stories on highwaySTAR's web site about how the "scarcity of talent" is affecting the trucking industry as well. But more importantly, we'll examine how that scarcity of talent will affect drivers and owner-ops who are already working in the industry.

If you have any comments, or would like to add to this discussion, please feel free to e-mail me using the link below, or call me at (416)614-5811.

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