Updated: Apr 27
Asking “How much do truck drivers make?” is not an easy question. This is because the amount of money a truck driver can make varies depending on many different factors. Some of these factors include freight type, where, how often, and how far a trucker drives, years of experience, and more.
For example, each year, ATBS analyzes the average net income for its truck driver clients. Even though all of our clients are truck drivers, their average net income ranges anywhere from $40,000 to $1,000,000 depending on a multitude of factors.
One of the best predictors of income for truck drivers is where the driver is in their career. This means looking at the difference in revenue potential between company drivers, lease-purchase owner-operators, owner-operators under carrier authority, owner-operators under their own authority, and owner-operators who are small fleet owners.
Company drivers can generally earn anywhere from $35,000 to $65,000 a year depending on experience, licenses and certificates, driving record, and the type of fleet they drive for. Of the career stages, company drivers generally have the lowest revenue potential, although there are certainly exceptions to that. Generally, a company driver’s revenue is limited by the salary they are paid by their company. Each year, a company driver knows about how much money they are going to make and their potential to earn bonuses. There is always the chance a company driver can negotiate a higher salary depending on how they’ve performed over time, but their earnings will likely be capped at a certain amount. This is different from all the other career stages because unlike the company driver, owner-operator truck drivers have a lot more control of their revenue and costs each year.
This does not mean you can’t live a quality life as a company driver. Company drivers don’t have the same worries and stresses that come with being an owner-operator. When they are home, they don’t have to worry about truck payments, maintenance, finding loads and other factors that come with owning a trucking business. Also, if you decide being a truck driver isn’t for you, it’s not hard to leave knowing you don’t have to get out of a lease or lose the money you’ve invested into the profession. Even though the earning potential for company drivers isn’t always as high as the other career stages, being a company driver comes with minimal expenses and less stress.
Owner-Operator Under Carrier Authority (Pioneer and Hired Gun)
Owner-operators under a carrier’s authority have the next highest earning potential of the truck driver career stages. We call drivers in this group Pioneers and Hired Guns. (Learn more about the driver career journey here). Lease-purchase owner-operators who drive under carrier authority and lease their truck are considered Pioneers. Owner-operators who drive under a carrier’s authority but own their trucks are considered Hired Guns. As a Pioneer or Hired Gun, you are still getting paid a percentage of the total revenue you are earning per mile by the carrier, but at a far greater percentage compared to a company driver. This is because you are taking the risk of being financially responsible for yourself and your truck.
Pioneers and Hired Guns are independent business owners responsible for their own success or failure. Even though they are earning more revenue, they need to manage their costs in order to be successful. Failure to generate consistent revenue and control costs will end in a failed business due to inadequate earnings.
The biggest difference between these two types of owner-operators is that owning your truck gives you greater choice and control over some of the truck expenses compared to leasing one through your carrier. This means that by properly managing these additional expenses you are responsible for, you can keep more money in your pocket than you would by leasing your truck through the company you drive for.
Leasing your truck through the company you drive for can increase earning potential by 10% to 30% over a company driver, and owning your own truck while continuing to drive under carrier authority can increase earning potential by an additional 10% to 20%.
Owner-Operator Under Own Authority (Lone Ranger)
When you become an owner-operator under your own authority, your revenue potential can increase by up to 50% depending on how well you are managing your business and how good the current trucking cycle is. Owner-operators negotiate their rates directly with customers and don’t lose any of the revenue they earn to a company taking a percentage. This means that you are in complete control of your earnings based on your revenue and how you manage your expenses.
Some of the expenses you have to consider include truck payments, trailer payments, insurance, different licenses, etc. You will also have to work to find your own customers as they won’t be provided to you by a carrier. Lastly, you must deal with market forces like the economy and how it affects the availability of freight and rates. So unlike a company driver, the amount of money you are going to make in a given year is not guaranteed. However, with proper business management skills, you really don’t have a ceiling on how much money you can potentially make.
Even though there is a great risk when you decide to be an owner-operator under your own authority, when things are going well, the reward can be even greater. There is a huge upside to this career stage if you focus on working with high-quality customers who pay on time, and pay what you agreed to.
Owner-Operator w/ Small Fleet (Trail Blazer)
Being an owner-operator under your own authority with other trucks running for you gives you the most revenue potential you can have as a truck driver. In this stage of your career, your revenue is only limited by the number of trucks that you can keep productive. This means that your revenue potential is essentially unlimited, but this career stage comes with the most risk.
Every time you hire a new employee, your revenue increases, but so do your costs and responsibilities. As a small fleet owner, you are in charge of all the freight, the employees, the trucks, the insurances, the liabilities, the laws & regulations, and any other responsibility that comes with running a business with people working for you.
If you have the money and are confident that you have good business controls in place to manage your employees, the sky is the limit on the revenue you can earn. Of course, all of that revenue won’t go into your pocket as there are high costs that come with managing a small fleet. However, if each new employee wasn’t helping you make a profit, you wouldn’t have hired them in the first place. In this stage of your trucking career, the amount of money you can make is only bound by your motivation, desire, and market forces.
So how much do truck drivers make?
The simple answer is that it really just depends on your unique situation. The stage you are in as a truck driver and the risk you want to take are just some of the many factors that will affect how much you make. This means that if you are thinking about becoming a truck driver or changing where you are in the truck driver career path, it’s going to take some additional research and real-world experience to figure out what’s right for you!