Despite the hurdles facing the independent contractors and the carriers that use them – including misclassification, higher equipment and fuel costs and new regulations – the independent contractor model is as strong as ever. That was the message from a panel of leading fleet executives at the 2013 Truckload Carriers Association Independent Contractor Division Meeting in Chicago.
The panel discussion on opportunities and challenges of partnering with independent contractors was moderated by Todd Amen, president and CEO of ATBS, and included Tom Kretsinger, Jr., president of American Central Transport, Darrel Hopkins, director of leasing for Prime, Inc., and Aaron Tennant, president and CEO of Tennant Truck Lines.
“The independent contractors we have are true businessmen,” says Tennant. “These guys were the first to adapt to things like slowing trucks down and doing the things that we sometimes struggle to coach our company drivers to do. They understand it affects their pocketbooks.”
“Ten years ago, the owner-operator ran big hood tractors and averaged 5 mpg,” said Kretsinger. “Those guys have either retired or gone broke. Being an owner-operator today is more of a thinking man’s job. The fuel difference between 6 and 8 mpg can be $20,000 per year. That’s a huge difference.”
The attack on the independent contractor model continues to be a concern and is a growing issue for fleets that use lease-purchase programs to cultivate a new generation of independent contractors. Another issue troubling fleets is in the new era of the Compliance Safety Accountability is how to coach independent contractors on the importance of safe driving.
“There isn’t a problem to convey safety information [to independent contractors],” said Hopkins. “You may not be able to sit them in a training class and say ‘This is how you have to do it’ but we have an open forum and pass information back and forth. We train dispatchers on what information they need to convey. There’s a difference between training and just communicating. As business partners you still communicate information.”
At Tennant Truck Lines, the mindset used to be that the company didn’t want to treat independent contractors any differently than its company drivers. “We didn’t want them to think we were giving our company drivers better loads,” said Tennant. The company used to mix independent contractors in with company drivers among the dispatchers.
Tennant has since changed that practice, with one fleet manager dedicated to independent contractors and one dedicated to company drivers so that it can better convey different sets of messages to the distinct groups.