Today's Trucking
opinions Rolf Lockwood

One-Truck Ponies: Owner-Ops Still Kicking

Posted: August 1, 2014 by Rolf Lockwood

The more things change, the more they… A tired old cliché, but it’s true. That’s what I’ve concluded after spending most of the past two months engaged in a deep look at Canadian trucking from a statistical perspective. Despite all that’s happened over the last decade — and it’s a heck of a lot — some things haven’t changed at all in numerical terms.

Case in point: the role of owner-operators. Lots of people have said this guy is toast, that he’s disappearing. Certainly many of them have given up on trucking, tired of being over-regulated, tired of ever-rising costs. I hear from them all the time.

Not incidentally, their moans and groans aren’t always the same as the ones I heard them utter 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, almost all the complaints were directed at the fleets they were running for. Lousy rates and unsympathetic management, etc.

Anybody remember ITAC? The Independent Truckers Association of Canada, launched by a few very unhappy Kingsway owner-ops way back in about 1980, didn’t last very long because the unhappy majority couldn’t rein in the very militant few. Their goal was simply better rates, but the really angry ones talked about blowing up bridges if you can believe it, which didn’t sit well with the group’s founding fathers. Nor with me.

The complaining I hear today is in some ways the same as what I heard 30 years back, in that nobody makes enough money for one reason or another. Nowadays, though, the financial challenges have less to do with mileage rates than with the outrageous costs of keeping an emissions-compliant engine on the road or with the often unpaid downtime of border delays or the arbitrary restrictions of hours-of-work legislation.

It was tough being an owner-operator in 1980 and I’d say it’s even tougher now.

But back to numbers, which show that for all the hassle, all the heartache, the owner-op remains part of our foundation.

Things have always been a little different south of the border, but in Canada the owner-operator is most emphatically not disappearing. For proof of that, I have only to look at our Top 100 For-Hire Carriers survey, which we’ve been doing almost since we launched Today’s Trucking back in 1987. Data from prior to 1995 was collected differently, so I had to use that year as my starting point in creating a spreadsheet to compare things year to year.

And guess what? In 1995 the percentage of owner-operators in a Top 100 fleet’s entire workforce was 20.5 on average. In 2012? A fraction higher at 20.6 percent.

Yes, that ratio has had some ups and downs, pretty much in line with the state of the trucking economy. When things are rough and freight’s scarce, the owner-op count goes down as managers downsize their fleets and protect full-time-employee driving jobs. And when the industry rebounds and capacity is required quickly, that’s accomplished by way of contracting with guys who have a tractor and maybe a trailer that they can bring to the party right away.

In 2010, for example, only 15.9 percent of a Top 100 fleet’s employee count was made up of owner-ops, down from 18.7 percent the year before. With the survey being done in January and February, that reflects the lousy year we all suffered in 2009. Things looked better through ’010 but fleets, broadly speaking, weren’t in a truck-buying mood (new emissions rules for 2010 engines helped on that front) so the owner-operator count rose to 17.1 percent in 2011 and had climbed back to 20.6 percent at the start of this year.

The highest ratio over the years? That was 22.7 percent in 1999, while the 2010 figure was the lowest in the last 17 years. The count stayed in the high teens from 2007 through 2011 but seems now to be on the rise again.

Numbers don’t tell the whole tale, of course. While their role in the industry may be the same, today’s owner-operator contingent is different than the one I encountered way back when. In some parts of the country he’s not necessarily a white guy off the farm, for example, as was once almost guaranteed. Nor is he bound to be a guy who might otherwise be working the fishery or the forest. Chances are pretty good that he’s a career-switcher who was previously selling insurance in Bosnia or teaching in India.

If he’s home-grown, as it were, maybe he used to be an Air Canada pilot or an ambulance driver. I know owner-ops who fit all those definitions.

What unites them all is an independent spirit. And that will never change.

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