Down in the dumps: Can you still make a decent living driving dump trucks?
January 25, 2010
January 25, 2010
Very few, if any, segments of the trucking industry have emerged unscathed from the recession of the past two years. But it seems dump truck operators are a particularly hard-hit bunch.
Gord Balford, an owner/operator in the Barrie, Ont.-area called me the other day to dicuss the sector’s many problems. He has sold his pup trailer and parked his Western Star gravel truck, because there are too many guys running their trucks for $70/hour and even major customers are exploiting the situation.
Making matters worse, he said companies are dragging their feet when it comes to paying drivers. He said one company just paid him just last week for work he did for them in August.
Balford said the final straw for him was when he bid what he felt was a reasonable rate on a job hauling wood shavings – but someone else came along with an end-dump and undercut his rate by a full 50%. That’s when he put his pup up for sale and parked his rig.
“This is how cutthroat it is and it’s getting worse,” he told me.
The obvious answer to the problem is that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand. Just like in the freight business, there are too many trucks chasing too little work. But wait a sec, what became of all the federal stimulus spending we were promised? I got the sense there’d be a new building going up on every corner, every mile of roadway would be getting an upgrade and gravel pits would be running low.
Instead we hear of rate wars, owner/operators selling their equipment and parking their trucks and companies that require their services taking months to pay up.
Ron Singer is the president of the Alberta Construction Trucking Association (ACTA) and is also a columnist for Truck West magazine. In this month’s columns, he identified several issues facing construction truckers in his home province. They’re the same everywhere in this country –except maybe Vancouver which is buzzing with pre-Olympic activity.
Ron says gravel trucking rates are down 10-30% in Alberta, depending on the region. It used to be you couldn’t help but make money if you had a gravel truck in resource-rich Alberta. Now, the industry is being put to the test and it is not responding well. Singer says he’s noticed a steady decline in professionalism and ethics within his own industry, which he notes is in correlation with the steady exit of the more experienced drivers who’ve had enough and hung up their keys.
In Alberta, the ACTA at least has a plan. For starters, it’s been surveying construction truckers across the province to learn about their most pressing concerns and to determine what they’re getting paid. It also developed a Code of Ethics and Standards that all of its members must adhere to. Next up, and this is the big challenge, the association hopes to get buy-in from all construction truckers. Singer feels that if everyone in the business unites, they can force some real change when it comes to rates and working conditions. We’re not talking about union organization and we’re not talking about price-fixing – his group is just asking guys to respect one another out there and demonstrate a level of professionalism and courtesy that seems to have been waning in recent years.
As we’ve seen with Obama, promising change is a lot easier than actually delivering it. But gravel haulers need to work together and buy into a common vision if they want their rates and working conditions to improve. Think it’ll never happen? There is a precedent for this. The Truckers Association of Nova Scotia (TANS) is a pretty effective little industry group out east that looks after its members and has even convinced government to agree that a certain percentage of trucks on any taxpayer-funded job site will belong to independents.
Nova Scotia dump truckers are not without their problems, but there’s a level of respect among them that’s almost non-existent in many other parts of the country. Singer says TANS is the model ACTA aspires to. I wish Ron and the ACTA well in their endeavour to raise the professionalism of their own industry. It’ll be worth watching and, if successful, celebrating.
EDITED TO ADD PICTURE: Here’s a picture of the dual/use vehicle Norm alluded to. How about it? Would you consider running a gravel truck with a removable dump body if it provided you the versatility to haul freight/logs or other commodities when things are slow?
James Menzies is editor of Truck News magazine. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 15 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies. All posts by James Menzies