16 March 2011

Moving America

The one industry I thought would never let me down ... trucking. Sixteen years ago I went to truck driving school. At this school, 'we' (the class) were assured trucking would always be a solid alternative to fall back on. Everything moves by truck.

I believed that. I worked hard, I passed the licensing requirements and was issued a Commercial Drivers License (CDL). Did that make me a truck driver? No, what it did was give me the basic skills to move forward, learn, refine the skills I'd learned and become a professional.

To keep this precious license there are requirements and standards to be met by law. Every two years, a medical review. Another written test to retain a Hazardous Materials Endorsement. New skills to learn and refine. Hours of Service Regulations to follow and keep track of to prevent tickets and citations issued by law enforcement agencies. Long hours of moving the rig down the road, short time at home, and pay that didn't always pay the bills. I did what it took to become a professional driver.

"Work hard those first couple of years, and you can go home, get that regional or local job and be home weekly or every day/night." I remember being told that. The creme jobs are the regional and local driver jobs. Used to be you could land a job like that after a winter over the road, minimally a year. Getting the over the road experience is the price paid (earned, if you will) for those coveted jobs.

By the late 1990's, things were beginning to change. There were subtle warnings .... drivers would find it more difficult to secure jobs in the coming years. I wouldn't have believed that for a minute back then. The need for qualified drivers was great, companies advertising for drivers ... even recent grads from truck driving schools, truck driving schools overloaded with new recruits. The industry boomed.

2001, everything changed. New laws, new regulations, new criteria to be met just to retain that precious license to keep doing a job that was (and is) overworked, underpaid and lonely. The life of a truck driver is not an easy one. It's a choice we (professionals) make to keep America moving.

Hazardous materials now requires a background check to retain the endorsement. TWIC, a program that requires port workers and drivers to meet criteria and secure a background check to enter seaports around the nation. Drivers Hours of Service changed in 2005 (for the better, I think). CSA2010, another new program (and law) designed to make employers (and drivers) more accountable for equipment and safety regulation violations.

So, is trucking regulated? No and yes. Not regulated from the standpoint of companies growth or how business is conducted. But yes, regulated by driver regulations and compliance. Are professional truck drivers a dime a dozen? Depends on who's point of view you're talking about and listening to.

In 1999, I got off the road for that coveted regional job and ultimately landed in a dispatcher's chair. The company moved out of state and I stayed behind. Driving again, regional went to local, then regional again, then casual and temp jobs. Was I searching for something elusive? Perhaps. I found what I wanted in aggregate hauling. It was fun, it was easy to learn the necessary skills. The hours were just as irregular as over the road and regional trucking had been, but I was home daily.

The economy tanked in 2007. Jobs locally and regionally were getting toughter to get. Companies went belly up (or down) and trucking as an industry took a hit. In an industry I thought would always provide me an income, I've recently discovered hiring criteria has changed immeasurably.

Due to the sagging economy and lack of local aggregate hauling trucking jobs... I wanted to go back over the road for awhile. This was not a decision I made lightly. I have many years of experience. Experience over the road, experience regionally, experience locally. I figured with all this experience .... I'd earned the right to be choosy (at least a little bit) about who I went to work for. So, I started looking for potential employers who might meet my expectations and offer me what I needed to make a living again. Decent equipment, a decent pay package, benefits (medical dental, and vision), paid vacation, and that all important home time. Any other perks for qualified drivers are icing.

I hit a block wall. A driver doesn't just get hired anymore. Not current? What does that mean? I'm a driver and I have experience. What do you mean I need three months of experience 'over the road' in the last two years? A hazardous materials endorsement (that may or may not be required). Medical releases from doctors, if I've been under care anytime in the last five years? Why do I have a medical review every two years then? Perhaps a previous employer has said something damaging in reference to why I left my last job? Not qualified? What do you mean? Is this about the insurance company that writes your carrier insurance?

Wait a minute, here, I've been doing this job fifteen years... I'm scratching my head. Have I blithely been doing the job unawares? I don't think so. Where do I go to get answers? What do I need to do to get current and qualfied again? To keep truckng. Or do I have a Commerical Drivers License that has become useless?

I know I can do the job. I'll do it again. America moves because of people like me.