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Career Limiting Moves

by Jim Park

We're reaching back into the mailbag again, like we did last month, to answer some of those career-related questions you folks are asking. We know there are limited opportunities to have some of these questions answered at work, because some of the questions are difficult to ask around the office. We're glad to be of some assistance in matters like these, so keep them coming, and highwaySTAR will do its best to keep you informed.

These are general questions, reflecting the nature of the real questions we're often asked. If you see yourself in the question, don't worry, we'll use no names here, just take the advice for what its worth, and walk away a little wiser.

What is interstating, and what happens if I get caught?

In its purest form, interstating involves the movement of domestic freight by a foreign carrier or driver. For example, picking up a load in Chicago, and delivering it to Denver. If you are a Canadian citizen with no visa or permit to work in the U.S., you're in violation of U.S. Immigration law. The same applies to American drivers moving domestic loads in Canada, say from Calgary to Winnipeg.

There are many variations on this theme, however, and some are a little less than clear. For example, switching of northbound trucks with southbound drivers, picking up and moving dropped trailers for loading and shunting, or hauling mixed loads of domestic and international freight.

The highwaySTAR website has posted an excellent document, written by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), explaining in pretty clear English what Canadian drivers are and are not allowed to do while operating south of the border. You can check that out at www.highwaySTARmagazine.com (PDF document).

Presently, the Canadian trucking industry is working with the U.S. government to establish clearer definitions of what's allowed and what's not. At the same time, Canadians are lobbying like crazy to have the rules relaxed a little, to permit a homeward-bound domestic movement as a way of adding efficiency to the transportation system, and to allow for better utilization of our equipment. It's not an easy argument to make, that of 'stealing' work from American drivers, but the talks are going well, we understand.

As for the penalties...? You may get lucky, and simply be deported. You may be deported and fined up to $10,000 for the first occurrence, or you may have the truck seized along with the other measures. The INS and the border-patrol types take their jobs pretty seriously, they're protecting their homeland, after all, and they aren't likely to cut you much slack. Of course you can always appeal one of their rulings, but they'll hang on to your truck in the meantime, just to make sure you don't do it again.

With all the electronics in use today, it's getting easier to detect interstating than it ever was. But there's still no replacement for common sense. Here's a candidate for the Darwin awards if there ever was one. A driver we know was once interstating a load of rice from California to Rochester, N.Y. He lived in southern Ontario, and having made it as far as Buffalo, N.Y. (about an hour from Rochester) on a Friday, with a delivery appointment on Monday, he decided to drop his trailer at the U.S. Customs compound at the Peace Bridge and bobtail home for the weekend.

When he arrived on Monday morning, he found the trailer pin-locked. Upon asking why, he was arrested and deported. He went home on the bus, and the truck was sold at an auction several months later. Brilliant, eh?

As a rule of thumb, if anyone ever suggests that you keep a particular movement quiet, or if you're asked to run bogus bills of lading, something a little left of legal is probably on the agenda.

I was just informed by a carrier that they wouldn't hire me because my payment is too high. What's that all about?

Many carriers are now recognizing that there's only so much overhead that their owner-operators can manage. In other words, there's a limit to how much you can make with these carriers, so they take steps to avoid situations where owner-operators are constantly asking for advances, or more miles and more earning opportunities that frankly, just aren't there.

Interestingly, these carriers tend to be the better carriers to work for, because they operate their fleets realistically. These carriers are looking for owner-operators with a stable financial background because the carriers aren't lending institutions. They don't want to loan money to an owner-operator who can't repay it. That's doesn't discount the odd advance for an emergency, but the proactive carriers look for patterns developing that suggest the owner-operator is in too deep, and can't support the business on realistic miles.

One of the better carriers we know of actually does a financial-needs assessment on all of its prospective owner-operators. If the balance sheet suggests that the owner-operator needs more revenue than the carrier can provide, the carrier won't hire. It's heading off a difficult future situation before it even develops.

To suggest the answer is to offer better pay is overstating the obvious. In a lot of cases, the money just isn't there. If you need 12,000 to 14,000 miles every month just to keep up to the payments, but the carrier can realistically provide only 10,000, then its just a matter of time until the owner-operator has to quit and go elsewhere. The carrier wants to avoid the churning issue, to be sure, but it's also being realistic about your future as an owner-operator.

Many owner-operators are dangerously close to the edge, today, in terms of financial stability. We hear reports of some going home with as little as $1000 for a month's work, after all the payments and bills are taken care of. Clearly, that's not enough, but when the reality of the carrier's operation dictates a 10,000-mile month, and the owner-operator needs more, there's going to be trouble. The carrier knows it can't supply more miles, so the message it's sending is, 'you need to adjust your costs downward.' If that's not possible, then it's all over but the shouting.

Jim Hebe, the former CEO of Freightliner, once said that any owner-operator who is carrying a payment of more than about $1600 is in too deep. That's a U.S. figure, but the same applies here in Canada. If the payment is too high -eating too big a chunk out of your take-home pay- then there won't be enough in the bank to cover personal needs. That's just arithmetic. The rest is just economic reality.

I was recently told by a carrier they they wouldn't hire me because I was a job-hopper. Can they do that?

Nobody is under any obligation to hire you for anything at any time. Employers, obviously, can't discriminate based on the usual reasons, but being a job-hopper isn't generally regarded as grounds for a discrimination review. Job-hopping is a term used to describe drivers who leap from carrier to carrier -often without even giving notice- or drivers who appear to switch employers too frequently.

In this age of seemingly endless employment opportunities, some drivers seem to have lost sight of the fact that their behavior doesn't go unnoticed, and that recruiters and safety department personnel do talk amongst themselves. They also call to conduct background checks on prospective new-hires. The so-called driver shortage has created a strong demand for experienced help, that's true, but some drivers shoot themselves in the foot by not playing fair with their existing employers.

Admittedly, you can make a strong argument that some carriers don't play fair either, but the marketplace, via the CB grapevine, has a way of dealing with them. What you may not realize is that a similar grapevine exists in the recruiters' circles, especially in communities that have small populations and high concentrations of trucking companies.

Let the carriers do business the way they want, but you have a career, and a reputation, to protect.

One recruiter/safety director told us recently that he has had drivers scheduled for interviews who never bothered showing up, drivers he'd actually formally hired who never reported for duty because they had found something better, never bothering to call, and drivers who showed up for the interview looking like they've just been dragged through a knot hole. You have to remember, whatever kind of performance you put on during an interview, the recruiter is going to have to assume that you'll do that again someday, possibly when you're wearing the company colors. The better carriers will take steps to prevent that sort of thing.

These times of ample opportunity for drivers are a good time to drive a better deal for yourself, but you have to conduct yourself professionally. If you're a highly employable driver, why waste an opportunity to bargain yourself into a better job by angering the folks who might be hiring you?

Here are a few tips on employment interview form:

If you make an appointment for an interview, keep it, or at least call with sufficient notice, sayingyou won't be there. Don't be afraid to reschedule if one of life's little hurdles presents itself. This will gain you a ton of respect, right from the start.

Prepare a résumé, and keep it updated. Be prepared to explain why you're leaving your current employer. If your résumé reads like the trucking yellow pages, don't try to hide it. If you do, the truth will be revealed when the carrier does a background check, and you'll look like a liar. Instead, explain each departure.

Try to limit the number of carriers you work for by doing more research into the carrier's operation. If the job doesn't fit your needs, you won't stay there long, so why hire on in the first place? This only perpetuates your job-hopping reputation.

Make a lot of phone calls to separate the carriers you'd prefer to work for from the ones you'd work for if you had to. Do this before scheduling the interview.

Dress appropriately. That doesn't mean a suit and tie, but the recruiter will have to assume that the way you are dressed for the interview will be the way you'll show up for work.

And above all, remember that bad news travels fast. Once your name gets on the wrong list, you'll have a heck of a time finding work, even if you are God's gift to a 13-speed.

How will border security issues affect drivers with criminal records?

While everyone involved is busy trying to sort out how to manage this issue, nobody is quite sure how it will all pan out. Already, we've heard that stricter security measures will soon be imposed on American HAZMAT drivers. Those requirements will likely soon be imposed on Canadian drivers hauling HAZMAT in the U.S. as well. The writing is on the wall as they say, and eventually it's expected that background checks will apply to most drivers who cross the border.

The stricter security measures will mean intrusive background checks, interviews, and possibly fingerprinting. This will make life somewhat difficult for drivers with existing criminal records who haven't yet been pardoned by the Canadian government, and/or granted a waiver by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization (INS).

Provided there's no really serious or on-going criminal behavior in your past, you may be eligible for a pardon from the Canadian government. The pardon doesn't erase the record; it just prevents anyone from using it against you. But a pardon alone isn't enough for INS. Pardons are issued by the Canadian government and have no standing in the U.S. Waivers, on the other hand, are issued by the U.S. government as a means of granting entry to an otherwise ineligible person.

If you do have a record, but you've not been convicted of anything in the past five years, you may apply for a waiver, officially known as an I-194 card. That process involves at least two separate record checks and usually takes several months to complete. And with the current paranoia to contend with, it might be wise to engage the services of a firm that specializes in this type of work.

Anyway you look at this one, crossing the border isn't going to get any easier. And since these arrangements take time, get moving on it soon.

For more information, call Pardons Canada: 416/929-6011, or, Pardon Inc.: 416/928-3239.

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