Together for the long haul

by Harry Rudolfs

Two years ago, Susan and Juan Groening were stuck in dead-end jobs. The young Leamington, Ont. couple (she’s 25 and he’s 26) were making house payments on credit cards and the future looked bleak.

“He was working in a metal fabricating plant and the welding smoke was getting in his lungs,” says Susan. “And I was working in a hospital and my hours had been cut back to about four a week.”

So in January 1998, the two decided to make a change. Susan started a three-month course at a truck school in Windsor, Ont. (Juan had already gotten his A licence by working nights and training with one of his brothers during the day). And by May of that year they had purchased a ’95 Freightliner with a 70-inch bunk that doubled as their home and business.

After developing their running legs with a couple of different carriers, they finally landed with FTI and a steady run between Frankfort, Ky. and the Sterling Truck plant in St. Thomas, Ont. Now the two (along with their Chihuahua, Shadow) make five trips a week – covering about 5,000 miles in total – hauling truck axles in their new 2000 International 9900 Series high rise.

The Groenings have rented their house and changed their own address to PO Box Hwy. 401/I-75. “I’ve sold all my furniture,” says Susan. Her mother even offers support, bringing them hot meals to the side of Hwy. 401. “She climbs up in the truck and we gab for a while. Then she takes the dirty dishes and we go on our way.”

Weekends are spent at Juan’s parents’ place in Leamington, and Saturday is the one day they spend apart. “He goes off to service the truck and I catch up on the laundry and my home stuff,” says Susan.

Other than that, the two are almost inseparable. “We do everything together,” she says. “Stop for a coffee together. Stop for breakfast together. Have a shower together. I like it because we’re always together.”

The arrangement hasn’t hurt their pocket books, either. “We had a debt when we started,” says Susan. “And we had to borrow some money for a down payment on the truck. But within 6 months we had $10-12,000 debt paid off.”

Most international carriers are forced to put teams on the road. Guaranteed delivery times and straight-through freight systems make running dual drivers a necessity. But finding compatible seatmates can be tough.

“In the past, two friends would get together and team up. Two guys can be the best buddies, but when they spend that much time together anything can set them off,” says Todd Coulas, risk manager for Travelers Transportation Services in Brampton, Ont. “The longest I’ve seen that last is nine or 10 months.”

Bob Halfyard, manager of driver relations and safety for Challenger Motor Freight, has one set of company drivers who have stayed together for five years, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. “It’s almost a full-time job to match them up,” says Halfyard. “Smoking and non-smoking is bad enough. Personal hygiene and the way you run – one guy wants to run hard and the other wants to stop for a few hours every day – there’s always something.”

That’s why husband and wife teams seem like the perfect solution, and are attracting the attention of a growing number of recruiters. “It’s excellent,” says Francois Boutin, assistant director of human relations for SGT 2000. “Excellent for us and excellent for them. They’ll stay out for months. All they ask is a little time off to take care of personal business.”

Halfyard agrees. “They’re pretty flexible. They’ll even stay out Christmas and New Year’s while most company drivers want to get home.”

“A trucker’s life is high-stress,” adds TransX’s Norm Schultz of Winnipeg. “If you can remove some of that stress by having the wife with them all the time so much the better.”

Schultz estimates there are 20-25 family units running with his carrier. “Twenty years ago it was unheard of,” he says. “Now younger people are getting into it. The trend is more family than ever before.”

While the Groenings represent a new generation of young families taking up the reins, Barb and John Robathan are more typical of the husband-and-wife trucking team. The Keswick, Ont. couple waited until their daughter grew up and moved away before hitting the road together.

“Barb was working at Dawson’s Marina on the boats,” recounts John. “And every winter she’d get laid off and would ride along with me. She was always itching to get behind the wheel. Finally I said that’s it. ‘You’re going to get your A licence and I’m going to teach you to drive.'”

The couple (along with a young Doberman that’s coincidentally also named Shadow) runs California-bound routes in their company-owned ’99 Freightliner Classic for Travelers Transportation of Brampton, Ont. After five years together, the driving duties are split equally – four hours on, four hours off.

“I don’t know how men can team together,” says Barb. “I can’t even see that. But a husband-and-wife team seems to work pretty good.”

“I wouldn’t drive with another man,” says John, adamantly.

Their circuit brings them back to Brampton about once a week. But they often spend the night in the yard and head right back out again the next day. This is common among many husband and wife teams – they work intensely for a month or so and then take a week or several days off.

Family driving units are so successful that many carriers advertise specifically for husband/wife teams and some offer in-house training programs so that company drivers can bring a spouse on board.

Arnold Bros. Transport has had a training program in place for introducing family members since 1996. “But before that we always allowed company drivers to train their brothers or relatives, as long as they had a good work record with us,” says Ross Arnold, vice-president of human resources. “One team of company drivers, the Schicks, have been with us since 1989.”

The plan is a graduated process through which the newly formed team signs a contract to run 10,000 miles the first month, 14,000 miles in the second and 18,000 in the third, with a series of evaluations along the way. “We’ve had 20 or 30 drivers take advantage of the program,” says Arnold. “It doesn’t have to be husband and wife. It can be a father-son team or a brother-sister.”

Halfyard has seen about a dozen drivers’ spouses come through the Challenger training program in the last year. “We’ve had a lot of drivers who have been with us for a while, and their wife gets an A licence. We give them a bit of training and let them run as super single until she gets more experience.”

According to Halfyard, the introduction of new “shift-by-wire” automated transmissions make the profession more accessible than ever to a wider range of people with different physical aptitudes. The trainee no longer has to fight with clunky gearshifts. “In five to seven years you’ll be hard pressed to find a manual transmission,” he says. “The joystick shift makes it easier for a new driver to concentrate on driving.”

“It’s hard for a woman to get a good paying job in this day and age,” adds Bev Mattocks of Oshawa, Ont. “And I can make a really good wage doing this.”

Bev and Frank Mattocks have been married for 17 years and running as a company team for the BLM group for the last four years.

“Most of our arguments in the truck have been over how to do the job,” says Bev. “He would take over and back up the truck in certain situations. Eventually I told him, ‘You have to let me do this.’ Now, I’ve run enough single runs and done enough driving that I’m completely confident on my own.”

After earning her A licence, the real problem was finding a carrier that would allow them to take their dog to work. “I’d say, ‘Here’s my dog. He weighs three pounds. Have you got a problem with that?’ That’s how we settled on BLM,” she says.

Now the four of them (they now have two Yorkshire Terriers, Oliver and Zachary) run weekly trips through the U.S., usually between California and Kitchener, Ont.

“I like running with my spouse,” says Frank. “I used to run four weeks at a time and I’d hardly ever see her.”

“You’ve got to be the best of friends,” adds Bev. “I
tell people it’s like locking your partner and yourself in a bathroom for a week.”

Once you’ve decided you’re going to run tandem with your mate, you’re faced with the decision of whether or not to buy a rig. Many, like the Robathans and the Mattocks choose the company route, happy to sock both salaries (usually around 44 cents/mile) into one bank account, without the worry of truck payments or maintenance hassles. Others, like the Groenings, opt for self-ownership.

According to Al Nicholet of Riley, Alta., a couple can make a little more money as owner/operators. He and his wife Sharon Grover (and yes, they have a pet with them – a seven-year-old Siamese cat named Bill) are the owners of a 2000 International 660 that they contract to Bison Transport.

They make regular triangular journeys between Edmonton or Winnipeg, Chicago and Toronto, getting home anywhere from once a week to once every month and a half. “We spent New Year’s Eve in a truck stop in Salt Lake City,” says Al.

Sharon doesn’t feel uncomfortable taking a seat in what has been traditionally a male profession. “I was the first woman in Canada to take a government-sponsored heavy equipment course in Nanaimo, B.C., in 1971,” she says. Another time she worked in a pulp mill, as one of 12 women in a workforce of 1,200 men.

“There’s a lot of old-time truckers who don’t know how to handle hearing a woman on the CB,” she says. “The comments are often so lewd that we just turn the radio off in the big cities. It must be embarrassing to people who have young families.” n

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