Voice of the O/O: Getting Started as An Owner/Operator

by Mike Smith

When I started trucking in 1974, the standards of training were fairly informal – introduce the student to the complexity of the machinery, and demonstrate some basic defensive driving skills and rules of the road.

Our class drove up and down the airstrip at the Boundary Bay Airport south of Vancouver, learning to shift a five-and-four, back up, distribute a load (on the trailer… not the roadway), understand braking distances and get in and out of tight spots. There were only the briefest of references made to log books, border crossing procedures or trucking “protocols.” What little else that I learned during that time was through contact with the other students, many of whom had family in the business or came from rural backgrounds.

After that three-week course, it took me 12 years as a company driver before I decided to finally buy a tractor and become an owner/operator. I thought that I’d heard all the horror stories by then. But still…there had to be something to it.

Over the years, I’ve made a lot of the classic mistakes, many of which I would probably have been able to avoid if I’d had a better grounding in the business fundamentals. It’s a small comfort to have discovered since then that most owner/operators also learned several of these lessons the hard way.

As readers of this column will know, in many of my articles I have expressed reservations about being an owner/operator in today’s hyper-competitive environment. I’ve suggested that being an O/O is a fool’s game unless you have taken the time to really research the risks and benefits.

Truck ownership can be a bottomless money pit, which only becomes apparent after someone has committed himself beyond the point of an easy exit strategy.

However, I have no doubt that, with the right set of circumstances, a determined individual can not only make it work but also do very well financially.

So for those who’ve been looking for an encouraging sign of what a proper introduction to being an owner/operator might be, they can start by considering the combined efforts of TST Truckload Express, KRTS Transportation Specialists and Arrow Truck Sales. These three have joined forces to put together a programme that takes a well-motivated, entry level person and provides the pathway for that individual to eventually become a working owner/operator. Despite the enormous challenges involved in the initial training, the interview for contracting with the carrier and the selection of the tractor, for the new student who remains focused on the goal, this avenue could provide an answer to one of trucking’s biggest problems – the shortage of qualified owner/operators.

The success of this programme depends on how much trust each participant is willing to invest. The carrier must have an enormous amount of confidence in the new owner/operator’s capabilities.

And it will require even more faith by the dependent contractor to surrender a lot of control. He’s on a steep enough learning curve already without harnessing himself to a considerable financial and contractual responsibility.

The process begins at the training level. KRTS Transportation Specialists, an industry leader in driver training and certification, will identify the uniquely qualified students who have expressed an interest in direct subcontracting. From there, TST Truckload Express will conduct further interviews to determine the applicant’s suitability. Only after those initial contacts are completed does the equipment search with Arrow Truck Sales begin.

From the new owner/operator’s perspective another crucial element is the coach or mentor, the trained professional who will be his daily lifeline. For the patient and understanding coach there’s no such thing as a stupid question. No hesitation is considered incompetence and no solution is ever obvious. Even after the student is driving solo, the coach is still available for the first year.

For all the details, contact Stan Morris at TST Truckload Express in Mississauga.

As for myself, I’m neither endorsing nor damning this initiative. Before I could do either I would need to know what kinds of lifestyle adjustments have been made unmistakably clear to the student.

They may have all the ingredients in place as far as attitude, driving skill, initial financial investment, family support and so on, but do they really know what the daily life is going to be like?

Long hours, last minute changes of plan, constantly being “a little bit late” and “a little bit lost,” mechanical breakdown analysis and resolution, healthy eating and exercise, disturbed sleep patterns regardless of the HOS rules, potential marital disruption, children deprived of one of their parents on a regular basis…the list goes on.

As I said last month, trucking is a whole lifestyle, not just an alternative career path.

– A long time O/O, Mike Smith is a member of OBAC’s board of directors. He can be reached at msmith@obac.ca

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