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(Editor’s Note: This story is part of a partnership between Chasing the Dream and Next Avenue.)
Bryant Walker, of Los Angeles, started driving a truck at an age when many veteran truckers think about calling it quits. In 2016, Walker (then 51), retired from a three-decade career installing office telecommunications systems to pursue a boyhood dream of hitting the open road in an 18-wheeler.
He then got his commercial driver’s license, used his savings to incorporate and buy a semi, found a driving partner and started looking for loads. He’s been going nonstop since the beginning of June 2017, driving half the time and working on the business from home the other half, when his partner takes over.
“It’s been great,” Walker said. “I grew up around trucks, I had friends who drove trucks for more than 30 years. I have a couple who still drive, and one of them is going to team with me for a year or two.”
Finn Murphy worked as a long-haul mover through his 20s and returned to the trade at 50. At the time, he had a midlife crisis, got divorced and left a wholesale textile importing business in New England for a new chapter in Boulder, Colo. “It was a difficult time,” Murphy said. “I did what a lot of guys who have a commercial driver’s license do — something happens in your life and you take to the road again to deal with it.”
Murphy’s been on the road again and chronicled his colorful adventures in a memoir, The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road. “The satisfaction I derive from my job is to be the captain of the move from beginning to end,” Murphy said. “I like the continuity and working with families.”
Surprisingly, it’s becoming more common for people over 50 like Walker and Murphy to pursue second acts as truck drivers. “I’ve even seen retired airline captains of 747s” become truckers, said Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs and communications for the Western States Trucking Association in Upland, Calif.
The vast majority of people embarking on these second acts are men, but more women are getting behind the wheel. “Trucking appeals to a lot of people who have wanderlust,” said Rajkovacz, who helps new drivers get established. “For someone who spent a life cooped up in an office, the open road has an intoxicating appeal.”
Newcomers will find plenty of opportunity for work. The American Trucking Association estimates the trucking transportation industry will need 890,000 new drivers through 2025 to keep up with demand and to replace drivers who are retiring, among other factors.
A trucker’s job is not without its challenges, though.
Time away from home can be lonely; spending days at a time sitting in a semi cab, eating truck-stop food can be unhealthy and the work can be physically demanding. People think they’ll see the country and meet people, but mostly what they see are the painted lines of the highway, and many of the people they meet work on loading docks don’t always treat truckers with respect, Rajkovacz said. Not all homeowners are hospitable to moving crews, Murphy makes clear in The Long Haul.
The Rewards of Truck Driving
But go in with your eyes wide open and being a truck driver in midlife can be quite rewarding — both personally and financially.
For one thing, there’s the ability to call your own shots and work only when you want to, Murphy said. He’s a contract driver for Joyce Van Lines, a nationwide mover handling high-end corporate relocations. When working, Murphy puts in up to 12-hour days packing and loading people’s possessions with the help of local crews; crossing the country to get to the client’s new home; unloading and sleeping — for weeks at a stretch.
For another, there’s the pay and benefits.
Veteran high-end movers like Murphy can pull in six figures. In 2016, the median wage for heavy- and tractor-trailer truck drivers was close to $20 an hour, or $41,340 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Truckers can earn more driving hazardous materials, flatbeds or tanker trucks or by earning other specialized certifications. Pay for other types of truckers varies depending on the type of license a driver holds, specialization and the part of the country he or she works in.
Murphy earns enough from truck driving that he doesn’t do it during the winter; he doesn’t like driving in snow. During his off-season, Murphy works for a Colorado group that teaches people with disabilities how to ski.
Company drivers may also get medical benefits, 401(k) retirement savings plans, disability and other insurance and paid time off. Independent contractors need to pay for their own health insurance and retirement benefits, not to mention the cost of buying or leasing a truck.
Getting Started as a Trucker
The first step to becoming a trucker is getting a commercial driver’s license, or CDL, required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and state transportation departments. Many major trucking lines run their own CDL training schools and some offer tuition reimbursement as long as trainees stay with them long enough to earn back the amount — typically 12 to 24 months. If they don’t stay, they’re on the hook to repay tuition.
Aspiring drivers also can take classes to get Class A, B or C commercial licenses at for-profit schools or through community colleges. Such classes last three to seven weeks and tuition runs $1,000 to $7,000, depending on the type of school, license and region.
Many short-haul, local or regional trucking companies won’t hire drivers without six months to a year of long-haul driving experience. As a result, entry-level trucking jobs are often with long-haul carriers. Those are some of the most grueling, sending drivers on cross-country trips that could last weeks or even months, quickly weeding out people who decide life on the road isn’t for them.
Drivers who prefer to work as independent contractors or start their own businesses after 50 may need to tap their savings to pay for classes and other startup costs, including purchasing a truck. Walker, for instance, dipped into his 401(k) to pay over $100,000 for a 2017 Volvo VNL 780. He also used savings for the $19,000 in annual insurance premiums and sank $15,000 into incorporating, allowing him to hire employees and obtain licenses to operate his own trucking company.
Walker said he got off to a good start, though he was so overwhelmed with the forms needed to run the business, his employee gave him a nickname: Paperwork. But he’s had no problems getting work. And by sharing driving duties, Walker has managed to keep the truck on the road almost nonstop. Within six years, he’d like to buy a few more trucks, hire a few more drivers and step into a management role.
Advice for Truck Driver Wannabes
Murphy counsels anyone considering getting into the trucking business to develop specialized skills. That, he says, will raise your earning potential. He also recommends getting real-world advice by visiting truck stops and talking with seasoned drivers there. “Look at their equipment,” Murphy said. “If you see some amazing beautiful flatbed, talk to that guy.”
Learning from a veteran can help avoid common trucking problems, Rajkovacz said. “They’ve made every mistake you can make, but they also learned from those mistakes and moved on,” he noted. In other words, to quote the R. Crumb ‘60s hippie comic, they keep on truckin’.
This story is part of our partnership with Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America, a public media initiative created to stimulate a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty. Major funding is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.
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