Monday, May 15, 2023

A Career in Over-the-Road Trucking (1974 - 2009)


Coming into Barstow, California from Las Vegas, NV.


This is a copy of one of the posts in my original blog, "Better World Trucking". It may be out of date, and trucking has changed over the years. but I hope you enjoy reading it.

Are you right for this challenging career?

By Keith Birmingham

Once again I have been asked if I would recommend trucking as a career. So, I thought I would post a little of what I think about the industry that fed and sheltered me for 35 years. I can only write about what it is like for me to be an over-the-road trucker.

I was a student, home on spring break from Oklahoma State University. My brother-in-law and I were in his front yard enjoying a cold beer, and talking about me trying to find work in a college town when a man that had bought a truck off Keith (my brother-in-law) drove the truck into the yard and up to the house. The man climbed out of the truck, and tossed the keys to Keith. “I can’t make the payments,“ is all he said as he turned around and walked off.

We were both quiet as the man walked back out to the highway and turned toward home. Finally, Keith (my brother-in-law) turned to me and asked “Ya wanna drive a truck?”

I sipped on my beer and replied, “Might as well.” After spending a few minutes checking over his truck we climbed in and drove out of town 6 or 8 miles. Keith drove out. I drove back - bobtail. That was the extent of my schooling in the trucking industry. From then on it was the University of Hard Knocks. 

That night I studied the Oklahoma driver’s manual my sister had used to get her license. The next morning we drove to Elk City, the only town in western Oklahoma where I could take a test that day. Two hours later I had a commercial driver’s license. (No, CDL was not in effect at that time.) The next day we drove to Dallas and signed on with B.F. Walker, Inc., a now out-of-business trucking outfit that specialized in oil field trucking. Of course, I intended to return to college after I had made the big money for a year. And, of course, the money was there “if” I put in the miles. But, of course, more money meant more buying and more debt. Life is what happens when you are busy making plans.

When I started in the industry lumping (loading or unloading the truck) was largely left up to the driver, but has been slowly and thankfully disappearing in the industry. When I retired back in 2009 I had not touched a load in the last 5 years of my career. I was often given the task of hiring and paying a lumper but was paid back by the career. The major percentage of trucking jobs do not pay an hourly wage. You are paid by the mile, or by the percentage of what the load pays the carrier that is your employer. So, where are the problems in this system? The problem with this system is the time you spend at the shippers and receivers dock and the other necessary duties that the driver is required to perform, such as securing the load, truck maintenance, and taking care of yourself. After what can easily be twenty or more hours per week of unpaid work the driver still has to make miles to earn money. Although it has improved for some segments of the industry (or at least for some companies) it is not uncommon to spend several hours at docks for shippers and receivers who show no respect for the truck driver. And, if your employer does not collect detention pay you don’t get paid for those hours. Some carriers will collect detention pay, but will not pay the driver for that detention. Grocery warehouses are especially bad about this misuse and mistreatment of truck drivers, but it goes on throughout the industry. And, competition for freight keeps most companies from demanding detention pay. It is that simple. This is also one of the reasons I worked for my last carrier, and will probably no longer drive. I seldom bumped the docks of grocery warehouses with my last employer. 

In recent years carriers are finding that in order to keep a driver on their trucks they must offer incentives such as increased pay for extra partial load drops, higher tarp pay, detention pay for being at a shipper or receiver longer than (usually) two hours. Many companies have perks such as insurance plans and 401k plans, and some have special employees whose job is to help you plan for the future for you and your family. These perks are nice if you can get them. I have never seen them. I stopped pulling open container (flatbed) trailers because of low and no-pay tarp pay. I have never seen a dime in detention pay. And, I don’t want the people I work for putting their noses into my family business.

Now, here are some personality traits that are very important to succeeding as a truck driver:
1.) You need to be self-reliant. There will be many times that you will be faced with taking care of business that should have been taken care of by other people. 
2.) You need to be comfortable with being alone for very long periods of time. Your social life will suffer.
3.) You need to be good at managing your money, or you will end up broke long before payday.
4.) Good communication skills and a good attitude is the most important tributes a driver can bring to their career
5.) Probably most important, you need to be a self-starter. If you need a nanny to wake you up in the morning, do yourself a favor, and stay at home with the nanny.

I have had a love/hate relationship with the trucking industry since 1974. I truly believe that the only difference between one company and the next is the physical address and the phone numbers. Many fleet owners would like to think that they will always treat their employees better than anyone else. The fact is that after a person invests large sums of money in equipment and in their drivers, many times it is the truck drivers that will screw over their employers. The employers become bitter toward drivers, and drivers become bitter toward employers. And, that is just the way it is.

When a person asks me if I would recommend trucking as a career I will  ask: “Are you married?” If they answer yes I ask them one more question: “Do you want to stay married?” Your spouse and your children need to fully understand that your career will require major, major, major sacrifices by them. You will miss the holidays. You will miss birthdays. And, you will miss anniversaries. And, your social life will often seem like it is null and void.

And, other than spending time with my family, playing music, working on my photography, and writing - there is nothing I would rather do than drive a truck. 

My name is Keith Birmingham. I am an Oklahoma/Nevada-based photographer, writer, and webmaster with a growing catalog of industrial, lifestyle, and nature photography. I am in the process of revamping my online photography business and have no personal website at this time. I do have around 1000 photos for sale/lease through ( Adobe Stock. If you use articles written by Keith Birmingham for any kind of publication you must include this resource box with the article. For details please contact Keith Birmingham at

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