The pros and cons of driving for a small carrier

by Bill Cameron

As always, there are two sides to every story. Recruitment issues are no exception. Last month, I tried to explain why small carriers can’t or won’t hire certain people. Conversely, there are several reasons why drivers and owner/operators have no interest in working for small carriers.

I’d like to present both the pros and cons of driving for a small carrier. Decisions based on familiarity are usually unwise.
You’ve seen dozens of trucks from the major fleets, but few from the small carriers.

Of course, the huge difference in truck numbers is the reason, but those big carriers will come to mind first when choosing a carrier to work for.

You may wrongly assume that job security and/or pay will be better with a larger company.

If the 1,000-truck fleet loses 20% of its work, it has a much bigger effect on the job security than if the five-truck company loses the same percentage of work.

Although my next few theories why drivers choose large carriers may sound cynical, even by my standards, they’ve been proven repeatedly. Some drivers rely on having a scapegoat to cover (sometimes frequent) equipment damage, making it a lot easier to escape blame for a scraped trailer, a cut tire or torn tarps. I once had to get keys to two owner/operator trucks, just so I could grease their  fifth wheels.

After I prematurely replaced two pickup plates (followed by a group reaming), they still couldn’t be bothered to grease the fifth wheel.

They had come from pin-to-pin large carriers, where this behaviour would be nearly impossible to trace. In a small fleet, the driver roster is comparably short, making it much more difficult to deflect blame.

Other drivers stay with large carriers so they may frequently skip a trip without warning. At a large carrier, you can decide you need time off with no valid reason or prior warning without losing your job, because there are a few dozen other drivers available that day to fill your vacancy. Try that at the small carrier, and you will be unemployed soon. We don’t have extra bodies to take your place on a whim.

Large fleets, with exceptions, are predominantly dry van operations, for simple reasons. They are chasing the large, multiple truck contracts, which usually don’t involve flatbeds. As well, it will be easier to fill seats for vans than flatdecks.

Drivers with minimal experience will gravitate to dry vans, because cranking dollies and swinging doors don’t require much training. As well, drivers are getting lazier, making the dry van appealing.

A lot of smaller carriers lean towards flatbeds, because the level of specialization involved represents higher rates. If you do your job well, a small carrier can still retain good-paying regular customers, because our small size better enables us to take care of their unique needs.

What baffles me is the amount of inquiries I have had over the years, from people currently pulling a van for a large carrier. If you are getting up in years, or have physical ailments, you should stay where you are.

However, the perfectly healthy drivers who have called to find that their earnings could be $20,000 higher annually, or the owner/operators who could earn $60,000-70,000 more, often end the inquiry with “sounds good, but I don’t want to pull a flatbed.” It amazes me.

We now have a price tag for laziness and/or complacency. That’s a lot of money to throw away just to avoid never breaking a sweat.

Many drivers live in small towns, yet will drive 100 miles to get to and from a job with a large carrier. There may be small carriers in their town, but they still gravitate to the large outfit.
The theory could be that the large carrier will be situated near a major highway, so dropping trailers at the terminal to allow someone else to complete the trip means regular home time.
In reality, the small carrier may get you right home, minus the 100-mile deadhead, and possibly more frequently, since our much lower truck numbers mean we often avoid long-haul trips.
Most of us don’t have the vehicle numbers to justify each truck being gone at least a week per trip. Also, our smaller customers traditionally won’t ship to or from long distances.
On that note, I have hired people for 500-mile radius work, wishing to get away from their previous long-haul positions. It rarely works. Crossing the border daily requires a completely different outlook on time management, a change that most are unable or unwilling to make.
Some factors that I consider to be benefits to a small carrier are that we typically will offer dedicated trailers.
For us flatbedders, this is especially beneficial, when all of your equipment is stored the way you want it and the tarps are rolled up exactly as you left them.
Our customer list is shorter, so even though the work may be slightly specialized, a driver will quickly become familiar with their duties and the job becomes quite easy.
A job with a large company may involve a lot more variety, which, depending on your preference, could be maddening or just perfect.
When the driver is ultimately responsible for the equipment’s mechanical condition, that whole pin-to-pin scenario can be frightening if the trailer you pick up was dropped by an abusive cowboy.
Like snowflakes, no two humans are exactly alike. So what’ll it be?  Small, or upsize? n

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