OPINION: If you treat trucking as a lifestyle rather than a business, you’ll go bust.
Business is business: Trucks heading down the Port of Brisbane motorway.
My daughter will soon turn 35, a sentimental moment for a father and a rude reminder of my advancing age. It also marks the 35th anniversary of my career as an owner-driver.
I look back on the purchase of my first truck and remember my excitement to embark on a new lifestyle of travel and opportunity. “I’ll be the master of my own destiny,” I thought.
I didn’t realise that with the exchange of keys I was locking myself into an industry for life. The freedom I thought I was investing in has over time diminished to a point where I have no choice but to keep running my truck.
I still get enjoyment from my job, and I’m reminded of that early excitement I felt in the ’80s whenever my two-year-old grandson Eli hops in the cab with me and wants to push all the buttons within reach.
As a young man full of enthusiasm I used to chat with owner-drivers who would come into the workshop. I would hear success stories how if you were prepared to make sacrifices such as being away from home friends and family and work hard, it would pay off, in four to five years owning the truck and a home was not just a long-term dream.
Being your own boss is an appealing dream, but nowadays it should come with a warning: if you treat trucking as a lifestyle rather than a business, you’ll go bust.
Perhaps the warning signs were already there and I, a mechanic at the time, refused to see them. After all, I did buy my first truck from a driver who couldn’t afford the repairs it needed. Sadly, this is a story I’ve heard over and over and it’s only getting worse.
For 35 years I’ve steered my truck forwards, and the industry has gone in the opposite direction. While rates have stagnated, costs like insurance, fuel and repairs have continued on an uphill climb. Years ago, your truck registration included three number plates: two for the truck and one for the trailer. Now, the trailer has its own registration that will set you back an additional $1,600 a year.
It’s a continuous squeeze that puts pressure on each run to be viable. If drivers get lured into thinking you can put in the hours for enjoyment’s sake without ensuring every hour spent on the job is profitable, it’ll be a short road to bankruptcy.
Enjoying the job is fantastic, but it is vital to separate work and lifestyle, and more importantly to ensure that the work can fund the lifestyle.
Many people ask if I would jack it in and go back to being a mechanic. To do that, I’d have to go back to school to learn the new technology, and even then would struggle to get employment at my age. Aside from the enjoyment I still get from driving a big rig, it is the only viable option for me until retirement.
Retiring is another important factor to consider. How many drivers are still going well into their 70s? For many, it’s not a choice. As I write this, I’m sitting across the table from a bloke who’s 74 and has no plans to retire soon. In long-distance driving, the squeeze on rates doesn’t allow for superannuation savings.
The recent attention on truck driver health and the concerning stats showing obesity, heart problems and chronic health conditions highlights why an aging workforce is dangerous for all involved. The Monash University study drew the link between deteriorating health and increased chance of being involved in a truck crash.
And of course, the job itself is to blame for many of the health concerns raised in the study. Sticking with the job as an old man or woman is only going to increase the prevalence of those conditions.
In the long-distance game, it’s unlikely to get consistent medical care when we’re rarely in one place for long. With tight margins it’s unlikely many drivers have good healthcare either, including dental.
It’s a frightening thought that truck drivers must continue working well beyond retirement, even with multiple health problems. But too often it’s a choice between working or relying on your family to keep a roof over your head – if you’re lucky to have that option.
This is why it’s so important to make sure we listen to our heads and not our hearts when making decisions about our trucking businesses. A job is only ever worth doing if it is profitable, will fund our lifestyles and enable us to save for maintenance, time off if we need it and retirement.
After 35 years in the game, here’s my pearl of wisdom. By all means, enjoy the job. Just make sure you’re a viable business owner and not a slave to the lifestyle.
*FRANK BLACK has been a long distance owner-driver for more than 30 years. He is a former owner-driver representative on the Australian Trucking Association Council.
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