Updated: Oct 7
Being a truck driver is not a simple job and not all truck drivers are the same. Each haul different freight, in different types of trailers, at different lengths, for different types of companies, in different parts of the country. This means just because you are a truck driver doing one thing, it doesn’t mean you are going to be doing the same thing forever.
Being a truck driver should be seen as a full-time career rather than just a job.
Since 1998, ATBS has helped truck drivers become more successful through various stages of their careers. From those experiences, we defined what we call the "Driver Career Journey.” The Driver Career Journey is not a linear path, and many drivers will travel back and forth between the different stages of the Journey over the course of their careers. Let’s take a look at how we define the different stages along the Driver Career Journey and the advantages each offers when being a truck driver is your career.
Most drivers in the trucking industry are Company Drivers. Becoming a Company Driver is typically seen as the first stage in the Driver Career Journey. Many drivers enjoy the low risk and high rewards that come with being a Company Driver, and end up spending their entire career as an employee.
Company Drivers don’t own their truck and drive the truck their carrier provides to them. They don’t have much control over increasing their earnings as it is often limited to longevity at a carrier and receiving bonuses for items like safe driving and good fuel economy. However, the personal rewards that come with being a Company Driver are high. This is because they enjoy the benefits that attract so many people to driving -- freedom, amazing views, and experiences, without the worries and stress that comes with being an owner-operator.
A truck driver can make an entire career out of driving as a Company Driver.
Lease-Purchase Owner-Operators under Carrier Authority (Pioneer)
The next stage of the Driver Career Journey is becoming a lease-purchase owner-operator under carrier authority. At ATBS, we call this stage the Pioneer stage. Becoming a Pioneer is a low-risk way for a driver to become an entrepreneur, running their own trucking business as an independent contractor/owner-operator.
Pioneers are typically first-time owner-operators who are still leased under a carrier’s operating authority. Pioneers are adventurous and courageous, but still seek support networks for business and financial coaching. This is because they likely have good experience driving a truck, but may still be learning about how to run their own business.
Most Pioneers acquire their truck through a carrier-sponsored program and usually have a more limited choice of what truck they can drive. Pioneers lease to a carrier to leverage that carrier’s freight network and buying networks. This makes it easier for them to find freight and also cheaper for them to purchase things like insurance, fuel, maintenance, and tires. Because Pioneers are responsible for managing the revenue and expenses of their business, they tend to earn more money than company drivers.
Pioneers are courageous, yet still on a learning curve. Compared to the other owner-operator segments, success rates are lower and there is a relatively high turnover. Successful Pioneers often transition into Hired Guns, which is what we will talk about next.
Owner-Operators under Carrier Authority with Own truck (Hired Gun)
The big difference between a Pioneer, and what ATBS calls a Hired Gun, is that a Hired Gun owns or finances their own truck rather than leasing it through a carrier-sponsored program. But, they still choose to drive under a carrier’s operating authority.
Hired Guns tend to be more experienced than Pioneers. They choose their truck in the open market in order to find exactly what they want to drive. They might finance their truck purchase, lease their truck, or they may pay cash and purchase their truck outright. Hired Guns enjoy the independence that comes with owning their truck, but operate within certain norms established at their carrier.
Similar to Pioneers, Hired Guns typically leverage the carrier’s buying networks for things like insurance, fuel, maintenance, and tires. However, the primary reason most Hired Guns lease to a carrier is to take advantage of that carrier’s freight network. This way they don’t have to manage sales and revenue collection the way an owner-operator under their own authority does while they are also able to rely on more predictive revenue and miles.
In general, Hired Guns make their own purchase and support decisions while maintaining an arms-length relationship with their carriers. They are experienced, reliable, trustworthy, and they enjoy their independence while operating within established norms.
Owner-Operator with Own Authority (Lone Ranger)
ATBS calls owner-operators operating under their own authority Lone Rangers. This is the next step in the Driver Career Journey. Lone Rangers operate under their own authority which means they aren’t backed by a carrier. They make their own purchase decisions and have to manage their own customers. Often, Lone Rangers become members of associations in order to take advantage of discounts on items like fuel, tires, and insurance. Two of the largest owner-operator associations are the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association (OOIDA) and the American Association of Owner-Operators (AAOO).
As mentioned earlier, Lone Rangers are responsible for finding and managing their own customers. They have to be savvy when it comes to negotiating rates, collecting revenue, and paying all their vendors on time. Lone Rangers may find some success operating on the fringe of the mainstream industry and gravitate toward specialty/high-paying niches. Their income fluctuates based on economic and industry cycles, and Lone Rangers may go between being a Hired Gun and Lone Ranger based upon these cycles. Going back to a Hired Gun from a Lone Ranger will once again allow a driver to take advantage of a carrier’s freight options.
Driving is a Lone Ranger’s chosen profession and they are in it for the long haul… no pun intended. They have proven to be accomplished entrepreneurs and are able to be self-reliant.
Owner-Operator with Multiple Trucks (Trail Blazer)
The last stage in the Driver Career Journey are owner-operators who own multiple trucks. We call the drivers in this stage Trail Blazers. Trail Blazers are the next generation of small but growing trucking fleets. They’ve been successful as a Lone Ranger and have proven their ability to make it on their own through the good times and the bad.
Trail Blazers are comfortable enough mentally and financially with taking the next stage in entrepreneurship by growing their fleet and managing multiple trucks. Trail Blazers often still drive, in addition to managing everything else it takes to make a small business run. They often run on their own authority, but they sometimes choose to operate their small fleet under the operating authority of a much larger carrier.
The job as a Trail Blazer hardly ever stops. However, their grit is a trait shared by others who have built some of the largest truck fleets in America. This is what motivates them to keep going.
So can you have a career as a truck driver?
What we’ve learned is that being a truck driver is very much a career. It is an occupation that provides a lot of room for movement, growth, and development. Truck driving as a career is not for everybody, but for those people who work hard and love what they do, the mental, emotional, and monetary rewards are well worth it.