by Jim Park
Go anywhere in the country, anywhere at all, and you'll find dump trucks. Regardless of where in Canada you're looking, the dump trucks will be hauling the same stuff. That much they have in common. As for the rates, the allowable configurations, weights, and so on, well, just remember it's Canada we're talking about here. But luckily for the dump operators, they seldom venture across jurisdictional boundaries, so the local spec applies. Nobody has to worry too much about some out-of-towner hauling more weight onto the job than the next truck.
You can put darn near anything into a dump box, making the equipment pretty versatile. Sometimes folks get a little carried away and load the boxes up with stuff that really doesn't belong there, such as crushed cars, steel coils and marine containers. In these cases, you get into cargo-securement problems. That's nothing to worry about, according to some operators, but just because it can be done doesn't mean it's a good practice. For the most part, though, dumps haul bulk materials such as sand, gravel and aggregate, lime, grains, livestock feed, etc.
Road building and construction are probably the most common uses for dump trucks in this country, so depending on how generous the local government is, and how well or how poorly the economy is moving, dump truckers can do pretty well for themselves. Or go hungry. It's certainly not a business for the faint of heart. When the economy is strong and money is being spent, demand increases. And when that happens, more and more players enter the business, which helps to keep the rates down. So in that sense, dump trucking isn't that much different from freight hauling.
In a few regions of the country, dump trucking associations have formed to combat rate slashing, but they've met with varying degrees of success. One of the more successful groups, the Greater Ottawa Truckers Association (GOTA), has just managed to negotiate a tidy rate increase over last year, but GOTA president Dwayne Mosley says it's an on-going battle to keep the rate up there.
"We've got competition from the smaller jobbers who don't know their cost of doing business," he says. "When we stick together, we've got a better chance of keeping the rate up to where we can all make a modest profit."
There's a point on the high side, though, where you run the risk of pricing yourself out of the market. According to Mosley, some of the larger quarries and construction firms are starting to bring on their own trucks. "That's where we have to do a balancing act between too much and too little. We seem to be just about at the right point right now," he says.
Rates for dump trucks vary from region to region, and often from job to job within the same city. Rates of $50 to $60 per hour are achievable in controlled markets like the Ottawa region, but they've been known to dip below $25 in competitive markets like southern Ontario and in larger urban centers where there's a lot of competition.
One of the problems with keeping the rates up is the large number of small businesses that operate dump trucks of their own. When things get quiet, it's easy to find work for the truck at reduced rates. That hurts the full-time dump truckers, and that's why groups like GOTA exist.
The Truckers Association of Nova Scotia (TANS) is another relatively successful organization. Based in Truro, TANS has chapters in every county in the province, and they work closely with individual counties on road-building projects to get haulage work for their members, and to bid on the work. TANS, like GOTA, does a pretty good job of keeping the rates up where they need to be, but there's always downward pressure from the contractors and outside competition.
All In a Day's Work
It's not hard to describe a dump trucker's day. Load here, go there, dump, go back for more. Of course there's more to it than that, but there's not much physical labor involved. That may be different in the winter if the material freezes in the box, requiring that you get inside and shovel it out, or if the loader piles you a little high on one end or the other. Again, out comes the shovel.
There's a set of skills that makes the dump trucker's life a whole lot easier. He has to be a good judge of where the truck can go and where it can't. On a construction site, the mud and the uneven terrain can make the driving pretty tricky. You don't get a second chance in the worst of conditions. Once you're stuck, you're stuck, until someone comes along to haul you out. This is where judgment comes in. So what if the supervisor wants the load dropped over there? If you can't get there - and get back out again - you have to make the call, and you pay for your mistakes.
In less demanding applications such as asphalt spreading, you've got fewer operational considerations to worry about. There, the important considerations are weight and timing. You want to load the maximum payload on the truck, and you want to flip the trip around as quickly as possible. The more loads you turn in a day, the better you do financially.
Gravel spreading is a tricky little operation that takes a bit of time to master. Most operations now use hopper trailers with the center-opening spreaders, where it's a matter of opening the gate and driving forward, and spilling gravel onto the roadbed. A few operators still do things the old-fashioned way, which is to chain the tailgate on the dump box so that it only opens so far, then tip the box up while driving. Either way, it takes a little practice to get the gravel as deep as you want it, where you want it.
The folks who haul out of the quarries have an easier time of it, once they get over the weight issue. Many quarries have recently set legal load policies, prohibiting overloaded trucks from leaving the premises. Trucks are usually marked in some way indicating the maximum legal payload, and if the loader is any good at his or her job, they'll keep the trucker underweight. That may sound good on paper, but the loaders don't pay too much attention to axle weights, unless you tell them where to put the weight. That's where the 'S' word comes into play again, and it can take quite a while to move a few tons of gravel with a shovel.
So as you can see, dump truckers don't exactly have the toughest job on the block, but it's no stroll in the park either. They generally start work as the sun is rising, and seldom quit before the sun goes down. It's really a case of making hay while the sun shines. If you include the number of inevitable rain days that fall every summer, a dump trucker really has to make the best of the available time. The summer's work has to last through the winter, after all.
According to Mosley, more and more of the provincial road contracts in Ontario include night work, which is just fine with him. He says it's cooler and the traffic isn't as bad, so he can actually get more work done. Plus, you can get more work out of the truck if there are two drivers on the thing, one working the day and another at night. That's more productive, and it helps come winter when all the work is buried under several feet of snow.
Winter is a slow time for dump truckers in Canada. It forces operators to manage their money pretty carefully throughout the year, and it necessitates a healthy rate for the summer work. "That is one of the hard things for the highway guys to understand," Mosley says. "My guys get a pretty good rate for the summer work, but it's got to last all winter. In this business, there's a margin built into the rate for the slow periods. You can't spend it all at once."
There's a danger to this kind of well-paying seasonal work. Some operators undercut the rate because they have something else to do in the winter. They think they can afford to work for less. "If they succeed in bringing the rate down, we'll have a heck of a time getting it back up again," says Mosley. "And with so many small or independent operators in the game, it's very difficult to keep the rates steady."
Canada is a land of seasonal opportunities, especially for the men and women who operate dump trucks. There's winter work available, mostly snow removal, or there's sand and salt haulage for the highways departments. In more temperate areas like the west coast and southern Ontario, some construction work continues year 'round. But if you're thinking of a move into the dump business, be prepared for a few lean years until you establish yourself in the market, then plan on spending at least part of the winter down south. If you plan and manage the business properly, there should be enough revenue in the summer work to let you get a winter tan.