A trucking CEO is determined to revamp a vilified industry—starting with $85,000 salaries and nights in hotels

April 9, 2022, 1:00 PM UTC

It’s no news that the trucking industry is in trouble. A cursory read of any daily paper garners endless anecdotes of the underbelly of America’s supply chain: sleeping in truck cabs, peeing into bottles, hours spent (unpaid) waiting to unload, sexism, sleep deprivation, weeks of a fast food diet, mediocre pay. It all folds in quite logically to explain brutal accidents, big ticket lawsuits and, ultimately, recent convoys of truckers who have, quite simply, had it. FleetForce Truck Driving School owner Tra Williams estimates there are 1,200 truckers retiring every week, leading the American Trucking Association to report that the industry is short 80,000 drivers—and will be 160,000 bodies short by 2030.

The industry landscape is grim, if not outright hopeless.

Until you talk to Steve Rush.

Carbon Express CEO Steve Rush.
Courtesy of Steve Rush

Rush entered the trucking industry in 1965 as a driver and worked his way through various roles in dispatch and driving. In 1969, he bought his first truck, and spent the next handful of years building a small fleet under a larger carrier. By 1983, he’d left the company he was driving for and founded Carbon Express, his own carrier in Wharton, NJ.  Today, Carbon Express runs about 60 trucks coast to coast, pays drivers an average salary of $85,000, operates only using day cabs and has single digit turnover. The company is, in a word, an anomaly.

“Most drivers love to drive a truck,” says Rush. “When you go to work, if you like your job, it makes it easier. If you love it, it makes it really easy. But you also want to be treated right and treated fair and get paid fairly, too. When I started in 1965, people had all of that. Over-the-road driving was almost non-existent. Then when de-regulation came that all changed. It’s been a downfall since. I look at this industry and I just shake my head… We are our own worst enemy and this shortage is real.”

A truck in Carbon Express’s fleet. Along with a competitive salary, the company also tracks every driver’s sleep throughout the week to ensure they’re rested and driving safely.
Courtesy of Carbon Express

The average driver, says Rush, doesn’t actually want to be away from home. The notion that driving a truck allows you to have freedom and travel, he says, is in part a romanticized version of the job. Travel is tough, and without the comfort of an actual bed, a proper bathroom and personal space, drivers can’t be expected to be at their best. “We run coast-to-coast in day cabs,” he says. “In 2018, we sent some trucks to Alaska and did it all with day cabs. When my drivers stay out, they stay in a hotel.”

Ellen Voie is president and CEO of Wisconsin-based Women in Trucking. She says she’s frustrated by the industry standard and does her best to highlight owners like Rush who are moving the needle. “The industry is slow to change,” she says. “When we say, ‘Put your drivers in hotels. Pay them overtime.’ They say, ‘That’s expensive.’ My response? ‘So is turnover.’” The drivers at Carbon Express, Voie says, “don’t care if they’re stuck in traffic. They drive day cabs and get paid overtime. They get a workout in the morning and free breakfast. They have no turnover. They have the best practices out there.”

Rush says that part of making the industry more attractive is creating a better environment for drivers all around. That means investing in more thorough training and taking safety measures to the highest level possible. In the wake of a recent trucking accident in the Colorado mountains, Rush sent four of his most tenured drivers to a mountain driving school in British Columbia. “There is absolutely not enough training,” says Rush. “There is no set training or government guidance. The U.S. government needs to declare this job a professional skill set. And then, they need to regulate training. It will improve the training and attract more people to the job. It also sends a message to the general public that the person behind the wheel is a professional.”  

Pay—which for Carbon drivers averages $85,000—is almost double the norm. (A March 2022 salary search for New Jersey-based trucking jobs on Zip Recruiter garners an average salary of $50,148, while the American Trucking Association reported in 2018 an average of $48,570.) The company also tracks every driver’s sleep throughout the week to ensure they’re rested and driving safely. “I rolled my first truck at 23 years of age, seven days before I got married,” says Rush. “I fell asleep at the wheel and I thought the reason I rolled over was because I didn’t know how to stay awake at the wheel. But then I went to a class on sleep patterns. Before 2000, We had a roll over every five years, and then that just went away. It was a game changer.”

As for turnover, says Rush, it’s in the single digits. Rush has also shifted his recruiting focus to a younger set (20-somethings fresh out of school), and honed in on the power of in-house training. “Now, our average aged driver is mid-40’s and it’s dropping,” says Rush. “I have about seven or eight drivers that are younger than 25. I can teach them the right way from the beginning so they don’t develop bad habits. You have to train them, treat them right and keep them in their sleep patterns. If after the first year, you are accident free, we’ll start reimbursing you for your schooling. We are successful together.”

Chevy Dillinger is one such 20-something. Three years ago at 22, Dillinger came to the industry because, he says, it is allowing him to maximize his income and see the country. Now, at 25, he is based in Ohio and drives his own truck as an owner operator (meaning he owns and drives his own truck under contract with a carrier) for Carbon Express. “I decided to buy my own truck for more responsibility and to be able to work on my own dreams,” he says. “When you work for someone else, you’re working on their dreams. I’d like to own my own company completely, one day.” When asked about the industry’s reputation, Dillinger admits it needs a facelift: “People look down on truck drivers. A lot of companies don’t treat their drivers right. But Steve has always treated us right and you can make a lot of money driving a truck. It’s a career, but also a lifestyle. I’m out here trying to build a business and a career. We’re always going to need truckers in our economy. The benefit of getting in young is the opportunity to grow.”

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