Mechanics, Truckers & Critical Thinkers: The Upside-Down Absurdity of Our Culture’s Values

Would you guess that there are as many mechanics in the U.S. as over-the-road truck drivers? Over 1.5 million folks get down and dirty on a daily basis to keep our humble modes of transportation on-the-go, and they earn about as much as truckers on the average. They’re also about as equally forgotten about.

Just the other day, about an hour after going to sleep, my co-driver and also my father, woke me up and said, “Umm…sorry to wake you. We’ve got a serious problem.” Now, I own our business, and I’ve invested a lot of money into our operation. So when I hear the words “serious” and “problem” together, it’s regrettably easy to get worried. But before I let my mind run rampant, I let my father explain what happened. Our fully electronic, automatic transmission got somehow stuck in gear, and the error message came through clear as mud: “Check Transmission CPU.” Trust me, it made as little sense to me then as it probably does to you now, but I knew one thing for certain: I’m no mechanic.

When you own your equipment, you inevitably face the need to do some fixing yourself to keep profits up. So ever since buying this truck, I’ve been on a mechanic’s crash course learning as much as possible about all the intricacies of engine components, electrical, drivetrain, and etc. There’s a lot to learn! And there’s also a lot that can go wrong. But it’s worth it to learn as much as possible because working on your own truck can save thousands of dollars a year.

As the story goes, I eventually discovered that the wires connecting the shifter box to the rest of the truck had disconnected during the trip, which explained why the gear jam occurred after my father hit a rather large bump in the road. Instead of assuming I couldn’t fix the issue, I kept looking for a solution. Eventually, I found the loose wires, reconnected them, and solved the problem. But if I hadn’t taken the time to think rationally about the scenario, I could have lost thousands of dollars in forfeited load revenue and tow/repair costs. In addition, I could have put both the customer and my contracting company in a precarious situation. The last thing I needed was a major mechanical problem, but luckily, in all of five minutes, I re-connected the wires and saved myself half a month’s worth of work and a trip to the shop.

And that gets to my point today. We avoid mechanic shops as a cultural rule-of-thumb. Ever thought much about that? As a cultural practice, we dodge mechanics like bullets, hoping that when the “CHECK ENGINE” light comes on in our vehicles we can somehow handle it ourselves to keep from wasting money on expensive shop time. But imagine for a moment what it must feel like to work a job that literally everyone tries to avoid. Mechanics are a great example of an occupational group that keeps our cultural life-blood flowing, since without them our cars and trucks wouldn’t stay on the road. We’d have a hard time getting to our offices on time, joining those fun and always slightly flirtatious after-work happy hours, and attending our kids’ weekend sports games.

Even more, when our cars or trucks do break down, we give the mechanics (and their shops) a hard time for inconveniencing us with the amount of time it takes to fix our vehicles. We whittle shops down on price as much as possible, often throwing fits of rage at what we perceive are far too overpriced bills. I’m guilty, too. But listen, it’s hard work and things don’t always fix up the way we plan. Mechanics have hard jobs, and they don’t earn enough for what they do. They make about as much as truckers, a measly $37k a year. Hardly enough to make ends meet in our modern world. Yet they keep on working their highly denigrated jobs to keep the rest of our lives moving (yes, “they” was meant to be vague).

By now, you can surely see the parallel I’m making between mechanics and truckers. At least it seems clear to me, the jobs that do the most to keep our lives in motion are the most undervalued. Hard hand-work like that of mechanics and truckers doesn’t pay as well or build as much culture capital as knowledge-heavy jobs like management consulting or lawyering. And underneath it all lies a silly assumption that hard-laborers can’t do the complex work of knowledge-workers because they’re not smart enough. How sad.

I can tell you, having performed both types of work, most mechanics and truckers employ the same highly-valued critical thinking skills that everyone else (supposedly) does. Take my little electrical problem as an example of the critical intellectual steps it takes to solve a mechanical issue: 1) I listened carefully to my father’s story about how the truck broke down; 2) I analyzed various components of the story to determine possible causes; 3) I identified the electrical components potentially involved; and, 4) I tracked the convoluted interwoven electrical wires until the issue was clearly diagnosed and fixed. Listen. Analyze. Identify. Diagnose. Fix. After just a little thought, it became obvious to me that good mechanics are master logicians of cause-and-effect relationships. While the rest of us are lucky to simply understand that concept at all, mechanics jump through the hoops of critical thought as a matter of everyday practice. And there’s something deeply horrifying about this.

Our culture claims to value critical thinking skills, but we know deep down that most people don’t actually operate at that intellectual level. The vast majority of our highly compensated knowledge workers are, in fact, barely above average in this respect. And this really is true based on some of my own corporate experiences. Rather unsurprisingly, the people who make the most money simply build strong relationships that skyrocket them to the top. Wouldn’t it be an interesting and probably more fair world if that wasn’t the case? But getting back to our sad reality, the folks who actually deploy the skills our culture supposedly values the most are the people it values the least, like mechanics and truckers.

I know that’s a big claim. And it’s not to say that our knowledge-workers are stupid. Of course, that’s not true. This is a complex issue I’m bring up, the matter of what kinds of jobs we should value the most, but there’s something significant to this line of thought that’s structurally, politically, economically, socially, and culturally problematic. In future posts, I’ll spend more time getting to the root of the problem. After all, cracking the code and explaining why our corporate world is quite literally the bane of our modern American experience is a very tricky business and filled with ambiguities and risks. But don’t worry, I’ll get there.

For now, be excited! The Preppy Trucker is about to get a new look and feel for 2018. I’ve upped my game and recruited some design help. We’ll be issuing a new site around New Years, and along with it I’ll be increasing my posting cadence to twice a week. Every week moving forward, I’ll issue one post that is quite broad and attune to general interests. I’ll even at some point ask you, my readers, to suggest topics you’d like to hear more about. And the other weekly post will be more strictly related to my trucking thesis. So stay in the cab with me, we’re just getting into gear!

Keep on preppy truckin’.

-TPT

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4 Issues Truckers Face: No Community

In my first post of this mini-series, I paid homage to the comedic genius behind Caddyshack and outlined how truckers, on average, lack respect for themselves, for their jobs, and from others. Both truckers and industry outsiders are to blame, but it’s clear that truckers suffer from a disproportionate lack of respect and feel like social outcasts. This is hugely significant, and it lays a foundation for understanding the overall situation of the trucker.

As it turns out, that first post struck a power chord with my trucker friends. Some went well out of their way to personally thank me for articulating how left-out they feel because of the lack of respect they receive based mainly on the kind of work they do. And truckers aren’t the only ones, either. Anyone holding low-paying or low-prestige jobs can definitely relate. I’m thinking of those types who work in sewer management, plumbing, janitorial, general contracting, or mechanical. They’ve got it rough as well. But on average, those folks experience far better living conditions outside of work than most truckers and are able to build stronger and more consistently meaningful relationships, which starts to get at today’s topic: community.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that truckers don’t have a community at all. Surely, they do. Simply defined, a community is a group of people that either live in close proximity to each other or share common characteristics. Truckers at least meet the second part of that definition. For example, they all deal with America’s bad roads, bouncing around in their cabs like lipstick in a lady’s purse. They also eat less-than-nutritious foods from truck stops or Wal-Mart. They earn far less on the average than they should. They wonder how and when they’ll be able to get to the bank or the eye doctor. And they rarely enjoy a relaxing beverage-of-a-certain-nature before bedtime. So yes, truckers share some cultural attributes. Indeed, they have a lot in common actually, but that doesn’t mean they experience a rewarding community-oriented life.

“Community” is not a simple concept. Sociologists have long debated various definitions, slightly leaning toward a definition accommodating complex ideological features such as the power-play between urban and rural communities (which basically has to do with determining what factors will lead to the demise of a particular society). For the trucker, the classic distinction between “urban” and “rural” doesn’t even really matter that much. Tight-knit rural communities are basically irrelevant, since the trucker travels virtually all the time making it difficult for them to maintain consistent, strong relationships with others. And the impenetrable urban environment is so physically tight that most drivers are afraid of even going in at all, let alone profiting from its cultural and social variety. Therefore, a definition that relies too heavily on the esoteric and inevitably damning constructs of modernity is not all that practical here.

If there is a truly useful definition of “community” that could apply to the trucker (and really everyone else as well), it won’t rely on geographic factors or common characteristics. One blog said it really well, “We think about communities based on what they are trying to accomplish.” Thinking of “community” in that way implies that effective communities are comprised of people that, regardless of their locale or character, build strong relationships with each other to achieve shared visions and goals. And in probably most cases, if not all, the main reason for setting up and achieving any shared vision or goal is really about human flourishing. Community is therefore inherently purposive, principally about improving people’s lives.

And that’s the kind of community that truckers don’t have, one that improves their quality of life. And why is this? If you look beyond many of the daily features that truckers share in common, you’ll notice that consistencies start to crumble. For one, truckers have mistakenly relied on weak, disparate forces to help them solve their problems. Lobbying efforts by organizations like ATA or OOIDA have generally failed to enact meaningful culture change as a matter of politics. Instead of focusing on systemic cultural issues, these organizations have focused primarily on technical issues at the policy level such as electronic logs and hours of service, which definitely impact truckers’ daily lives but are not significant enough to bring about the kind of economic and socio-political change truckers actually need. These organizations are important, but they need re-focused efforts. Good policy helps, but culture change will never come from an edict.

So up to now, broad-based efforts to improve truckers’ lives have not been effective. The disproportionate lack of respect truckers face from outsiders keeps truckers from positively connecting with the rest of society, and the lack of effective community support structures creates a huge barrier to building a purpose-driven collective effort to improve life conditions. As a result, truckers are culturally boxed-in and feel as if they can’t do anything to improve their situation. So they just keep on keeping on, avoiding the bigger conversation altogether.

Many truckers feel like they have literally nothing significant to talk about. So they talk about what’s easy for them to talk about: trucks. If you visit a truck stop diner, you’ll occasionally hear drivers talk amongst themselves. Most often, they talk about their trucks. Trucks, trucks, and more trucks. “My Cummins beats your CAT every day of the week and twice on Sunday!” “Hell it does! Mine’s pumping 650 horsepower!” It’s always about their equipment, and usually in an instructive or boastful manner. Even most trucking blogs concentrate heavily on the topic of equipment. Did I mention trucks? Well, if truckers do venture out into other topics, they usually talk about where they’ve been and how long they waited at the dock. But for the most part, truckers talk trucks. And why? Because it’s basically all we’ve got.

Truckers don’t take Mediterranean Cunard cruises, visit metropolitan art museums, or attend operas. How could they? They work non-stop, and they don’t have easy access to varied cultural experiences even when they do get time off. Many of them do want to be more culturally involved, but they generally don’t have access and they’re generally not socially accepted by those circles. But consider what would happen if truckers did up their cultural game. They’d become more educated on important topics such as race and religion, understanding “difference” in ways that might lead them to see and treat others better. They’d become more active political participants, engaging more in the nuances of public policy rather than populist ideology. They’d have more substantive, meaningful (and generally more considerate) conversations with each other. But truckers are bred as simple and unsophisticated beings, and the world aims to keep them that way. Effectively, truckers are culturally limited, which in turn limits their collective potential to improve the quality of their own lives.

That’s why community-building is so critical. If measures were taken to develop the trucking community, to give it power, to give it strength, and to give it broad-based cultural understanding, truckers would be enabled to make the kinds of changes that would improve their overall conditions, their lives. As of now, truckers don’t have a community presence equipped with the cultural tools needed to harness their shared visions and fix the problems that plague them. What truckers need is a targeted effort, bringing both truckers and outsiders together to discuss what’s important to them, to build awareness of the harsh conditions truckers deal with every day, and acknowledge how critical trucking is to the functioning of our world. Well, that’s what The Preppy Trucker is all about.

My vision for this blog, and all its future related endeavors, is to spring to life the lost voice of the trucker and bring their needs into focus. As you continue to read, please share your thoughts and reactions to each post. Especially you truckers, the world needs to hear your stories and reactions. I want to encourage everyone to break open the silence that has plagued truckers for decades. Truckers do, in fact, have shared visions and goals, but they’re embryonic, unarticulated, and unconsolidated. Those visions don’t yet hold much weight in the public eye, but we’re going to change that.

Truckers have been kept out of the public conversation for far too long, and they’ve lost their voice (if they even ever had one). So it’s time we give it back to them. Appropriately, watch out for the third leg of this consciousness-raising “no” series, 4 Issues Truckers Face: No Public Voice.

Until next time, keep on preppy truckin’.

-TPT

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SURPRISE: What’s TPT Wearing Today?

Since I know you’ve all been curious, I thought it’d be fun to give you a quick break from the heavy stuff. What does TPT actually wear on an average day? Well, the trucking life calls for a diversified closet portfolio since your geographic locale and weather conditions change daily, and without adequate space to house a wardrobe it can be difficult to have the right things to wear when they’re needed most. Thus, it’s important to think practically when it comes to choosing trucker wear.

For most truckers, attire is simple. Either you wear a company uniform or you wear your favorite grubby ol’ t-shirt and jeans. Most companies that force their drivers to wear uniforms usually provide a range of items for varying weather conditions, but that range is often a small one and not of good quality. Still, that’s better than nothing, since drivers’ wages aren’t typically high enough to buy the proper raiment. For owner operators, though, who actually make a decent wage and have a bit more sartorial freedom, clothing choice can be more pragmatic, suitable, and condition-appropriate. They typically earn more, which means they can and should feel a bit more willing to splurge on the right clothes for the job.

Since I’m in the latter category, and an estimable preppy trucker no doubt, let’s take a brief look at what I’m wearing today as an example. It’s 3˚ Celsius near the Canadian border, an odd temperature to clothe for when in and out of a truck all day. Not quite freezing with virtually no wind to speak of yet still cold enough to feel the chill, it’s crucial to wear layers today that are easily removable, breathe well, and are generally light. Nothing heavy.

So, first layer. I’ll start with a simple black, slim-fit Calvin Klein undershirt for both comfort and fit. Then I’ll throw on a black pair of lightweight Eddie Bauer jeans for a sophisticated yet also hard-wearing touch of class. The all-black look unquestionably stylish and also befitting a superficially masculine culture, it complements my average height and athletic build while maintaining a relatively low public profile. In keeping with my monochromatic theme, I pop on a 100% cashmere J. Crew crewneck sweater, also in Stygian black, for a soft, warm, and breathable main layer. Add to that a black leather belt by Trafalgar and a fully water-repellant pair of Ecco GORE-TEX approved boots, I’ve now completed my first layer. Yes, of course I’m matching my boots to my belt.

But I’m not quite ready yet to tackle the elements. Barbour is one of my favorite brands. Making weather-proofed outerwear since the late 19th century, they offer some of the best wax jackets and quilted vests you can find. And today, it’s to the black side of my Barbour collection I go. First, over that super soft cashmere sweater, I layer on a black quilted vest with a velvet baseball collar and all the right pockets to accommodate my wallet, phone, and other accessories if I decide to remove the final layer, which is a car coat-length wax jacket with double vents, a tartan plaid lining, and a corduroy collar. This combination allows me to easily full zip, part button, or remove entirely any of three layers and adjust to varying weather conditions throughout the day. Plus, I’m literally waterproof from nearly head-to-toe. Not bad.

It’s also important to note that I have on-the-ready a packable Tumi umbrella in case of light rain, a pair of gloves to keep my hands warm if temperatures uncomfortably dip, and an Eddie Bauer beanie. You never know when conditions will change, so it’s best to be prepared. No dandy has ever been so practical! So as you can see, it’s definitely possible to be fashionable while out on the road (without spending a fortune), and one can be comfortable and weather-ready, too.

This concludes my surprise fashion exposé, but it may again randomly appear in the future when you least expect it, so keep your eyes peeled.

And keep on preppy truckin’.

-TPT

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4 Issues Truckers Face: No Respect

One of my favorite celebrity personalities of all time, Rodney Dangerfield, performed basically the same facetious routine every time he appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Cracking slapstick jokes about spiritless marriage, lackluster sex life, and poor health, Rodney knew exactly how to articulate why his life wasn’t going so hot: “Johnny, I get no respect at all!” Of course, the act was all fun and games, and millions of people loved his jokes, but behind every chewy statement there was usually a wad of truth. Somewhere, somehow there was someone who wasn’t giving him the respect he felt he deserved. And Rodney knew many people shared his feelings.

I feel like I deserve some more respect, too. Just the other day, a distribution center receiver gave me quite the hard time for arriving later than expected. Despite that I had driven there at as fast a rate as legally possible without having eaten or taken a very much needed stop of a certain “personal” nature, he railed me for not arriving earlier in the day. Even more, he expected me to do most of his work during the unloading process, and he nearly ruined our brand new trailer by running his heavy forklift at a breakneck speed over the dock plate. When finished, he didn’t wait for me to present the paperwork to him. Instead, he rummaged through my portfolio (yes, I still keep my paperwork organized in a leather portfolio, a vestige of my oh-so-corporate days) and found the paperwork himself. In the end, he didn’t even sign the bills correctly. I was simply left to clean up his mess and ignominiously walk out of the facility. And as I left, I caught him wearing a proud smile, joking with his co-workers about my “lousy” job. Tears for Fears got it right: everybody does want to rule the world. And some lousy job it was, indeed! It didn’t even occur to him that I had actually arrived 15 minutes early to the appointment that he, yes he, arranged. Ahhhhh, Johnny, I get absolutely no respect at all!

Rant over. This experience is rare for me, but it’s the usual for most truckers. Most truckers work in low-margin industries such as grocery, auto, or other dry goods, and those industries don’t make enough profit to command educated and refined workers along the entire length of the supply chain. But that’s not the only issue. In fact, it’s that our working world places too much value on multi-faceted, multi-action, knowledge-heavy jobs. Truckers and dock workers do too simple of work to merit refined, sophisticated work practices and cultures; at least, that is how the big corporations see it. So little time is spent on developing work environments, and truckers get the last kick-in-the-rear from the operational ripples.

Working in the pharmaceutical industry, I deal with more highly educated personnel and inordinately more regulated operations than other truckers. The usual for me entails a stronger importance placed on customer experience, product security, and operational excellence. We take more time than most truckers to ensure that product damages are avoided, we carry larger insurance coverage, we use newer and better equipment, and we have more robust operational practices. We also make a lot more money, too; so much so, that our average wage outweighs the average American by nearly two times. The gist is that pharma truckers have a much better gig than virtually all other drivers. Still, we get little more respect from basically everybody. Our lack of respect then must not have much to do with the kind of money we make or the comparable prestige of our job.

Respect is really a tough concept to define, since it comes in many shapes and sizes. Some people feel like they deserve respect based on their particular brand of religious philosophy or some long credentialed history of work or personal life successes. Others feel like they deserve respect because of moral discretion or the ability to meet the expectations of others. Yet others find respect to be completely irrelevant, dismissing it and thinking it has no relation to things like “care” or “concern.” As complex a term both on paper and in practice, these notions of respect only begin to outline functional definitions, not even structural, a priori definitions of the word. Merriam-Webster defines respect as holding something or someone in “high or special regard.” Clearly, regardless of your language philosophy, truckers are not held in very high nor special regard. And if that has anything to do with a proper definition of respect, truckers ain’t got it.

And while our world continues to struggle to understand the concept of respect in meaningful, consistent ways, truckers know it means something to them. Most, if not all, truckers feel a complete lack of respect from others. Team Run Smart (TRS), a sponsored web platform that provides truckers general industry and operating advice, reported one of Overdrive Magazine’s poll results showing that a lack of respect is one of the worst parts of a trucker’s job. In response, TRS suggested 5 ways to show greater respect to drivers, which included a greater appreciation for truckers’ time, higher pay, and honesty. And it’s true, being in the industry, I can confirm that truckers are generally under-appreciated, underpaid, and frequently lied to by various entities.

Where does this incredible lack of respect come from? Surely, institutional factors aren’t the only things that lead to a lack of respect for drivers. One web forum determined that respect from others begins with yourself, requiring a higher standard of dress and professionalism, attention to detail, and customer concern. There’s definitely some truth to this. I experience completely different treatment at receivers and truck stops simply by tucking in my shirt and wearing a matching belt to my boots. Top on the Stetson cowboy hat, people open doors for me like you wouldn’t believe. And I don’t think it’s out of some anti-gunslinger fear. People in all industries feel respected when others take the time to respect themselves and the way they look and present themselves. Truckers would certainly do well to improve their overall appearance.

And now, we’ve successfully identified an exemplary chicken-or-egg argument. Either truckers get no respect because of the ways they act and present themselves or truckers get no respect because society and its denigrating systems of control put the trucker at a complete loss. Which one’s culpable in The Case of the Missing Respect? Everyone else? Or truckers themselves? Well, both actually.

At least three kinds of respect issues plague the trucker and contribute to the low quality of life they experience on a daily basis:

Lack of respect by everyday Americans for truckers. Remember my first post? Truckers feel like “throwaway people.” That collective feeling stems from various stigmas that everyday folks impose upon truckers, which includes thinking them inferior intellectually, physically, politically, morally, and economically. Somehow, others need to see truckers as equals.

Lack of respect by truckers for their own jobs. Truckers need to collectively dress and act professionally, taking care of their customers and equipment to a high standard of excellence. It’s hard for others to respect people who don’t respect themselves or the work they do, just ask this PhD.

Truckers’ lack of self-respect. Since it’s hard to respect others when they don’t respect themselves, this one almost goes without saying. But the fact remains, truckers need to see themselves as important to the American way of life. They need to see their everyday lives as contributions to the greater good, thereby seeing themselves as good people doing good things for others.

And truckers absolutely do need respect from others to continue to do good and better work. The Schuitema Human Excellence Group wrote, “If we are very deliberate about developing deep respectful relationships in our professional lives, what we are in effect doing is cultivating alliances which can act as a launch pad to maximize our own potential and the potential of the groups we are part of. We will all begin to view each other as valuable and will start adding value to each others lives.” A significant growth in at least these three areas of respect is crucial to ensuring that truckers continue to help everyday Americans. Besides, and we know this, who wants to work when literally no one respects what you do or how you do it? If that attitude grew, we’d all be in for quite a ride.

Inevitably, it will take more than a few well-articulated stories and psychological data points to convince an entire political society that broad, systemic changes must be made. So tune in next week for the second edition, 4 Issues Truckers Face: No Community.

Keep on preppy truckin’.

-TPT

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Whatever You Can Do, a Trucker Can Do (Maybe)

About a week ago, I was crossing the border and an agent (of which country I won’t say) needed to inspect my truck. Probably looking for drugs or smuggled goods, he pummeled through my personals without any respect for their condition and came back to the place where I was standing and demanded, “Hey you, follow me.” With an intensely inquisitive look on his face, he led me to my now-messy truck to find golf balls and tees strewn about the pavement, my Stetson cowboy hat crushed by a briefcase, and many of my clothes thrown haphazardly all over the place inside the cab. He accusingly asked, “Where did you get all these things?” Still in shock from the mess, I tried to explain that these were, in fact, my own things and that I use them on the road all the time. He didn’t believe me. Titleist golf clubs, a soprano saxophone, 60+ books on social theory, one cedar and rosewood Taylor guitar, exclusively Apple electronics, 5 keys worth of German harmonicas, Ralph Lauren clothes appropriate for various seasons of the year, all-natural and organic food stuffs in the fridge, and a couple pair of not-so-recently polished cowboy boots. No drugs. What was so unbelievable about that?

Well, belief is a powerful thing. Despite all the cultural artifacts and scattered evidence right in front of him, he just couldn’t believe me. I’m sure it looked a little suspicious, it being amazing that I could even fit all that in there. But honestly, I didn’t know what else to say to the guy. What was I supposed to say? There was no untruth to be told. After the initial shock wore off, I reluctantly responded by saying that I simply wasn’t like most truckers out there and came from an entirely different cultural world, which luckily for me seemed to satisfy his choleric curiosity enough to let me through customs. I’m sure I left an indelible mark on his memory.

And so did he on mine. I’ll never forget what it felt like to be completely disrespected by that border officer. The other agents on duty seemed somewhat respectful and nice, maybe they even felt a bit awkward watching their colleague rummage and tear through my things with complete disregard, but they did absolutely nothing about it. They just stood there in silence. And why? They, like their colleague, just couldn’t believe that a trucker could have sophisticated hobbies and tastes. After all, they’re not used to seeing drivers with Titleist golf clubs stuffed in the storage compartment or copies of Anthony Giddens’ The Constitution of Society neatly stowed on the dash. That just doesn’t exist out there on the road. But I am a trucker, and I do have sophisticated hobbies and tastes. Much to their surprise, instead of finding dope on their “random” little scavenger hunt, those officers discovered a cultured creature emerging from the ass-crack of society with a library, wardrobe, and a small music studio. Add “cultural archeology” to their job description.

I can’t fully blame the officers for how they treated me, though. What’s really going on here goes far beyond the discriminatory attitudes and behavior of just a few people. It’s true, they were completely blind to the fact that truckers have a right to quality lives like everyone else. But it’s really institutionalized discrimination and stigmatization that keeps truckers from doing many of the things that most people enjoy on a daily basis.

In effect, this basically means that you get one set of life options if you drive a Subaru and an entirely different set if you drive a semi. Here’s an example. Let’s say you’d like to go to the grocery store to pick up some meat and vegetables for dinner. All you have to do is hop in the car, drive a few miles, grab what you need, and return home. Not a big deal. But if you’re a trucker, get this: you’ll need to plan out your route up to several hundred miles in advance, hope for a spare 30-45 minutes (which you usually don’t have because the logistics industry is wound so tight), get lucky enough to find a truck stop on your route, spend 5-10 minutes parking upon arrival, take 5 minutes walking-in because the lots are so huge, scour a few racks of cheap Kraft dry foods, stand in line for 5-10 minutes waiting to pay, race back to your truck, dig out a paper plate and plastic utensils you bought at your Walmart stop a few trips back, eat your less-than-TV-dinner-quality meal in 5 minutes or less, and then get back on the road. In case you didn’t notice, there’s no grocery store in that last description.

Of course, not every American has a car, and not every American can afford whole foods (all puns definitely intended here). But the difference is a matter of average convenience. The trucker is at a serious disadvantage compared to everyone else when it comes to carrying out even such a basic life activity as buying food from a grocery store. Most of the time it’s simply impossible.

Speaking of Walmart, they’re about the only truck-friendly grocery chain in the entire country. Some of their locations offer semi-truck parking, but of those that do, most either force you to wedge-in between all the cars, medians, and light posts or they let you park in the back by the loading docks, forcing you to walk half a mile just to get in through the customer door. Sadly, most of their locations do not allow trucks at all. At those locations big signs say, “NO TRUCKS ALLOWED.” Some truckers will disobey the signs and park there anyway, but it’s clear they’re not supposed to be there and could be ticketed and towed for trespassing. Walmart doesn’t sound so truck-friendly anymore, does it? The signs might as well read, “NO TRUCKERS ALLOWED.”

In the United States, trucks aren’t allowed in most areas. Laws governing both residential and commercial areas, which include state, county, municipal, and even some federal regulations, keep trucks away from just about everything. You’ll find truck stops on the outskirts of town, distribution centers far from residential neighborhoods, and truck repair shops in non-paved areas that look a lot like junk yards. Sure, trucks are noisy, they’re not the best for the environment, and they’re big, but we get more than 75% of our daily goods from them. Still, we see them as a general problem and push them literally aside.

This segregation of trucks and the people that drive them is similar to gentrification, an approach by urban planners that updates the quality and aesthetics of buildings and houses with appeal to middle- and upper-class tastes. Though the economic benefits to a community can be significant in some cases, gentrification is often a mechanism that redistributes immigrants and the poor to other areas, thus divesting them of any chance at having the modern luxuries that most people get to enjoy like fine restaurants and shopping malls. We do the same indecent deed to truckers by keeping trucks out of our pretty neighborhoods. For the most part, Canada doesn’t do that (and they have better landscaping). So why should we?

I never thought I’d say this, but Walmart’s doing a great thing compared to virtually everyone else. In a world where truckers are segregated from all common life, Walmart at least actively tries to give them a fighting chance. Ironically, Walmart is a savior for the trucker. But it’s hardly a start to the change that’s needed to give truckers what they deserve. We have to do something. Actually a lot of things.

Perhaps one great way to help truckers live normal lives is to provide them access to cars. That doesn’t sound all too brilliant, right? But remember, Uber isn’t everywhere. The fact is, not one single truck stop, out of several thousand that exist, offers a car-share program. Companies like ZipCar, HourCar, and Car2Go heavily populate urban centers and university campuses, helping people without cars go wherever they need to whenever they need to. I’ve personally used these services, and they work well. Imagine the quality of life improvement for truckers if car shares were offered at truck stops. Truckers could get to those hard-to-reach grocery stores and start eating higher quality food. They could attend baseball and football games, visit museums, go to the movies, and shop for new clothes at decent shopping malls. And this is an example of a “low-hanging fruit.” With these companies doing well in many markets, the infrastructure is already in place to easily expand the service to truckers. All that needs to happen is to get the right people talking. Let’s get to it.

You see, change is in reach, but we’re just scratching the surface. Making a better life for the trucker is a much taller order than simply providing a Prius at Pilot truck stops. We’ll need to go deeper. So stay tuned for my upcoming series, 4 Issues Truckers Face.

Keep on preppy truckin’.

-TPT

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Preppy Books and Culture Rooks: Exploited Truckers and the Need for Change

In 1980, an ivy-league educated but mostly unknown author at the time, Lisa Birnbach, released what became one of the greatest selling non-fiction books in America: The Official Preppy Handbook. With over 2 million copies sold and 38 weeks as #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, Birnbach’s serious but not-so-taken-seriously tome on prep culture inspired millions to redress themselves and match the uppity, old-money creatures of the early 1900s. Brands like Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, and L.L. Bean grew in popularity largely because of her book and sparked a huge sub-culture of those pink-panted preppies I alluded to in my first post. If you want a lesson in culture change, take a look at what her book did. Prep culture continued to remain primarily an elitist cultural phenomenon of course, but the middle classes began to enjoy new fashions and social habits they wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.

While prep fashions in the U.S. became more widespread, trucking culture was also going through a major shift. Growth in U.S. production caused the number of trucks on the road to grow by over 50% between 1975 and 1990, and a significant piece of deregulating legislation in 1980 called The Motor Carrier Act led to increased average wages for OTR truckers and improved overall flexibility in the logistics market. As a result, higher wages sparked a new wave of entrants to the trucking industry. Driving became a relatively cool thing to do, much like wearing penny loafers without any socks to the office. Owner-operators made between $30-$40k per year, and in the 1980’s that was good, middle-class money. Being a trucker at that time you could save money for retirement, feel the freedom of the open road, and own a chromed-out big rig with tons of shiny lights. Those folks were “livin’ the dream.”

But unfortunately, that’s only half the story. Industry growth hit the brakes, and post-inflationary pressures of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s kept driver pay relatively in place. On average, truckers have earned about the same ever since, making their economic power to buy just about anything today smaller than ever. A recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that increased competition during that time led to an overall decrease in average wages for most folks in the industry. And according to the Department of Labor, the average OTR trucker in the U.S. now earns only $42,000 per year, barely more than they did 30 years ago. And truckers aren’t the only ones. They’re just one great example of large systemic wage suppression in the United States (if you don’t believe me, check this article out).

Despite a considerable driver shortage (as much as 50,000 truckers according to some reports), wages have remained incongruently low for years. It’s tempting to think that a shortage could have brought about higher wages, but it hasn’t. It likely will though if the industry doesn’t make some drastic changes. The shortage will get worse. With an average trucker age of 49, there’s a looming retirement bubble waiting to burst like bubblegum on the industry’s prickly face. Some employers don’t see this as a problem and find ways around it. But with an industry average turnover rate of around 90%, most employers feel the pain. To alleviate that pain many companies have developed robust recruiting efforts, but in doing so they’ve missed the big picture. Most trucking companies are just running over their own feet trying to get folks to drive for them under oppressive conditions.

One major issue right now is that the trucking industry generally views driver pay as an operational cost rather than a business opportunity cost. For those of you not so business savvy, this is similar to the difference between looking at your bathroom toilet as a household utility instead of an everyday necessity. In effect, companies have paid truckers low wages and worked around driver shortages by adjusting rates of production and by cramming additional freight in trailers. As if truckers are the problem, companies continue to squeeze them for as much work with as little pay as possible. In the end, drivers feel the brunt of it.

Some companies try to lure new drivers through increased home time and specialty pay. Since most truckers are out on the road 200+ days of the year, employers with those programs have realized a slight competitive advantage in the employment market by logistically orchestrating more home time for their drivers. But here’s the catch: drivers working for those companies make even less than the average because of the time off and logistical cost to employers. And drivers are finally starting to catch on to this. Another strategy, specialty pay for hauling goods like hazardous materials (HAZMAT) or pharmaceuticals has allowed some drivers to make a considerable amount more than the average driver (up to six figure incomes in rare cases). But that’s still not attracting new and younger entrants. One article suggests that sign-on and safety bonuses have not helped companies either. With how impossible those bonuses are to actually achieve, this comes as no surprise to me. Tactics like these are at least part of a relatively intelligent logic train, but the tracks still point in the wrong direction. Most companies continue to spin their wheels wondering why they can’t attract or retain decent workforces.

Let’s take a step back now and recap. There aren’t enough drivers. They’re generally not paid well. They’re overworked and under-appreciated. Growth in the U.S. economy over time hasn’t helped. Companies can’t really figure out why. The situation’s not getting any better. And there’s seemingly no good solution. This sad reality is where the pejorative phrase “livin’ the dream” actually comes from, meaning that what once was a dream is not really any longer.

So what’s really going on? And why is everyone in the industry not getting it? The brightest minds in the business have yet to address the real issues at play. Here’s at least one reason why: the trucking industry is fascinated right now with technological innovation (e.g. autonomous trucks) and operational efficiency (e.g. Six Sigma). Things like these will be discussed in future posts, but the main point to note is that neither of these focal points will be the base for success in meeting future market demand. Virtually no one understands this and is willing to address more complex cultural factors. And who’s to blame them? Large marginal returns don’t exist in the industry. Profit is based on freight volume and keeping operating costs low. Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. The cheaper you move the goods, the greater are your chances for marginal return. But things like advanced technology and process improvement cost a ton of money, since it means large capital and infrastructural investment. As long as the trucking industry focuses on these strategies, they’ll keep breathing air into that bubble until it bursts. Remember what would have happened if the banks weren’t bailed out? Yeah, it’s about as big of a deal. Imagine a world with a toilet paper shortage.

Today’s generally accepted business principles maintain that good people doing good work happily do good business. Right now, that does not describe the trucking situation. The problem is that drivers today are lost in the midst of a complex super-structural industry machine and are relatively forgotten about and exploited. Even worse, most companies don’t really seem to care. Something drastic needs to be done. To set the industry down the right path, trucking will need to develop its ability to appeal to the cultural needs of highly educated post-millennial generations. They’re the (near) future.

In my opinion, the existing driver shortage in America stems from three dominant cultural factors. First, people today are more highly educated than ever with over 30% holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. This number will only continue to grow since most employers now see a four-year college degree as the new minimum requirement. This highly educated young culture expects higher wage earnings, job prestige, and better quality of life. Second, along with large acquisitive business growth over the last 15-20 years, large corporations have become the occupational bedrock for young educated Americans. We now, more than ever, rely on the stability of large companies for job opportunities and respectable wages. And third, negative cultural stigmas associated with trucking have deterred new entrants from joining the rank and file. Simply not carrying enough prestige and cultural influence to be noteworthy, America’s new average citizen sees trucking as beneath them. And who wants to be away from home so much just for that? Money isn’t everything you know.

In short, if trucking is to overcome existing and future pressures such as an ever-present driver shortage, it’s going to need to address various cultural factors instead of ones simply found on a company’s balance sheet. Preoccupations with profit-focused business tactics will only lead to further exploitation of drivers and future market inefficiencies. Bottom line: the industry needs a culture change in order to thrive in the future. What might that look like? Stay tuned…maybe someone will write The Official Trucking Handbook.

Be sure to watch for my next post, “Whatever You Can Do, Truckers Can Do (Maybe),” which will explore some of the unique, fun things truckers can and can’t do out on the road.

Keep on preppy truckin’.

-TPT

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From Corporate Automaton to Enlightened Trucker

Trading a prestigious job known to occasionally turn down Harvard grads to go trucking isn’t an easy thing to do. But I did it. Sure, things like abundant college debt or feeling like you don’t really fit in with the corporate American business culture can make you feel the need for a drastic change. But in the end, those weren’t my reasons.

This longtime pink pant-wearing preppy traded in the boat shoes for cowboy boots and a freer life. What’s it really like? Is there a bigger goal in mind? What about all your suits and ties? Aren’t you going to miss your friends? These are the questions I faced, and so many more. Sometimes you just have to go to Walmart, buy some Dickies white tube socks, and make a change. That’s what I did.

Not long after I left the “normal” world of educated, middle to upper class folks, my friends became fascinated with the idealism of being able to leave the corporate world, so much so that I received tons of calls and messages wondering what it must feel like to be free from it all. That’s when I knew I wasn’t alone. I was living the dream alright, my own for a change, but I quickly discovered that my new dream represented something a whole lot bigger.

You’ve probably heard, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” When Henry David Thoreau wrote those words, he had returned from life in the woods and was again living a regular modern life under the common comforts of a decent city dwelling, sit down meals, updated fashions, and regular conversations with friends and colleagues. But those words reflected his general discontent with living a life just like everyone else. He was recounting the meaning of his brief hiatus in those lonely woods, where he discovered that there was more to life than what most people thought. Whether or not it was pure privilege for Thoreau to take a break and experience something else, that’s beside the point. He stepped away from the “normal” for a moment to look deeper at the meaning of life, to decide for himself what was truly important. That’s what The Preppy Trucker is all about.

Let’s face it, most people don’t think twice to care much about truckers. This weird bunch of folks live in rolling boxes, they don’t have much money, they aren’t college educated, they don’t hold season tickets to ball games, and they don’t have résumés. Truckers aren’t normal.

To most people, trucking feels almost completely irrelevant. The average person might know if asked that trucking is important, but that’s about it. Behind the scenes, trucking does more for the average person than just about any other industry. The vast majority of daily-use goods arrive via truck, and most of those are transported by OTR (“over-the-road”) truckers. OTR truckers are the people you think of when you think of trucking. They drive 18-wheelers across the country wearing ratty t-shirts and greasy denim. They carry around two 64 oz. coffee mugs ready for regular mid-day refills. They hang out at truck stops, jumbo size gas stations with showers and laundry machines. And they eat at Denny’s. Truckers are the people “out there” on the road, and for the most part, they stay out there.

Life in the corporate fast-lane is about as polar opposite to trucking as anything else. It takes a lot for someone to trade pressed trousers and Eton dress shirts for torn up jeans and non-politically correct t-shirts. Before getting into trucking, I worked with some of the largest public and private organizations in the world. I’ve seen a lot of wardrobes and, by extension, a lot of people. But trucking is unlike every other experience I’ve had.

A recent article by the New York Times showcased a series of conversations with long-haul truckers from the central United States. It’s main point: truckers feel like “throwaway people.” Though the article does well to highlight the dismal, lonely life of over-the-road truckers, it fails to address the nuances of life-options available to them. Leaving the “lifers” (people who’ve been trucking for a long time, their only job) for another discussion, new entrants to the trucking industry these days tend to be immigrants or folks nearing retirement. These are the people who are forced to go into trucking because they don’t have many other options. And they’re not the only ones. These truckers are quite literally the throwaways of society.

The Preppy Trucker conceptually brings into focus issues like these to accomplish at least two things: 1) start a conversation that virtually nobody takes the time to start, and 2) craft solutions that can create better lives for an entirely forgotten subset of American society. This blog will drive down the life-roads of everyday truckers in hopes of making their lonely lives a bit better and more in sync with the rest of us (or us more in sync with them).

In a way The Preppy Trucker is a blend of two strangers: one like the deep inside of the protagonist of Billy Joel’s famous song and the other like the indifferent Meursault of Camus’ popular novel. The posts that follow will highlight some of the chains that bear weight on my own conscience about how our society works (and doesn’t) and will come from the powerful position of a true outsider. I didn’t come from a family of truckers. It wasn’t my only life-option. I’m more a parvenu of sorts, achieving a personal economic goal through leaching onto a foreign industry. Embedding my personal story within an analysis of the trucking world, each of my posts will look at controversial subjects to address many of the tacit assumptions people have about truckers and American life in general.

As you read, you may already be familiar with some issues. A recognizable discussion, for example, on autonomous self-driving trucks may seem familiar because of the presence of a similar public debate going on about self-driving cars. A likely more foreign example though, truckers suffer from an inadequate mail infrastructure. Tell me you’ve stayed up at night thinking about that. Many truckers would be considered “homeless” by a strict economic definition of the word. So how do they receive mail? How do they have credit cards? Bank accounts? Cars? The average American doesn’t face these issues, but truckers do. Deep infrastructural problems lie at the base of why truckers live the lives they do, and I will take a close look at them.

And that gets at exactly what a “preppy trucker” really is. It’s someone who examines something from the inside, yet while in ways remaining a true outsider. Get this. It’s really OK to wear pink pants and drive a truck. But why don’t we see truck drivers wearing pink pants? Because our world requires us to be practical, and that same world has different ways of prescribing what “practical” should mean in any given circumstance. Even more, why truckers don’t wear pink pants is coupled to broad, systemic things like economic and educational class status, race, gender, politics, and religion–all the things we’re scared of bringing up at the dinner table. Wait…truckers don’t have dinner tables. Well regardless, all these factors shape the trucking industry and how the average person sees it (or doesn’t).

So hop into the cab with me. We’ll be looking through pinstriped windows at a complex world of truckers and their everyday problems. Where a solution can be found, we will find it. I will aim at adding a new post every two weeks to pay justice to my cause and keep you excited about the issues. Your comments and participation will be much appreciated along the way. Please feel free to email me or publish respectable comments to the blog at any time.

Keep on preppy truckin’.

-TPT

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