I spent over a month digesting a New York Times article on trucking lifestyles: “Truckers Feel like Throwaway People” The sub-heading was: “Truck driving, once a road to the middle class, is now low-paying, grinding, unhealthy work.”
As usual, the Times does a bang-up job, replete with some pics that would have alone sufficed for a nice photo essay. But to get their narratives, the Times’ writers lizarded around truck stops collecting stories from drivers—and, I suggest, skewed them to fit their thesis: dead end job for those marginally employable–long hours and not many upsides.
From my perspective the Times’ feature was a misrepresentation on many levels. But the biggest flaw was that the writers never got to the heart of the matter–the reason most of us show up for work every day and sacrifice a good deal of family time to pursue this career. Put simply, we love it.
Trucking may not be the best-paying job but there certainly are lucrative niches and good middle class jobs waiting to be filled. The profession may have tedious and repetitive aspects, but it’s also a perfect fit for those who crave solitude, and an outsider like myself who would never thrive working in an office environment, or under the thumb of a supervisor while assembling widgets in a factory.
It’s also a “natural” job in a sense. There is beauty in those sunsets and moon rises, and there’s something humbling and grounding in experiencing every inch of geography and the full spectrum of weather this vast country has to offer.
But the best reason is we get to play with heavy equipment. I’ve been fascinated with anything mechanical that moves since I was a wee lad–bicycles, motorcycles, airplanes. So this job keeps me interested and young. I also get great satisfaction in handling a big rig well.
Years ago I was pulling an empty trailer out of a dock a General Motors stamping plant, one of those buildings in the huge complexes on Stevenson Road in Oshawa. It was a hot day and stamping plants are noisy, mind-numbing places so I was happy to be getting out of there.
I pulled out to close the barn doors and there are these autoworkers sitting on the curb opposite eating their lunch. “I would give anything to trade places with you,” one of the fellows says–and I knew exactly what he meant.
He might be making twice my wage and he’ll get a good pension if he can survive decades of drudgery. But I don’t have to go back into the stamping plant like he does. I’m going out into the real world and facing real-time adventures Yes, those days I was working long hours and the work wasn’t always stimulating, but the money wasn’t bad, the equipment not terrible, and the lifestyle continues to suit me.
Let’s face it, it’s not too hard to find truck drivers that want to bitch about their jobs. So the Times storytellers probably didn’t have to look too hard. There was also mention of an uncertain future for truck drivers especially with the dawning of the age of autonomous vehicles, supposedly on the horizon.
Uncertainty has been the watch word for this industry every since I started driving in the 70s. The nature of this business is its dependence on the economy and consumerism. I know one trucking company whose business is booming, (who better remain nameless), but may indeed owe most of its recently startling volumes to the incursion of new-fangled disruptors like Amazon. And how long is that paradigm going to be sustainable with the upstarts looking around for alternative delivery solutions?
As for autonomous trucks–no worries. The first autonomous truck drivers will have to be extremely competent both as drivers and technicians. This will be the cream who are given these trucks. Eventually, the position will be done by a new category of trucker who will be more of a technician than a driver and not have to do much while on the highway. But there will be, for some time, a human on board every autonomous truck, able to take control if necessary. And the roads will be much safer for all this.
But we’ll still need drivers who can get the trucks around the back alleys and docks. This would be a job similar to a marine pilot on the seaway. The autonomous truck would arrive at a staging area and would be met by the pilot/driver who would take charge of the unit to its final destination.
Some could argue that self-driving trucks will take the romance out of trucking. But there’s still lots of romance left to go around. If you want a good job there are lots of them out there right now—go get one.
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs