Owner-operators are becoming more common throughout the trucking industry. While becoming a driver for hire is still a lucrative career, owning your own truck — and by extension, business — is the ultimate form of freedom and flexibility in the trucking industry.
It may seem daunting when you’re just starting out and don’t even have your CDL yet, but you can always begin learning the ropes. Entering the trucking industry takes time, so even if you’re only beginning to explore the basics, this guide can help you think about how to work toward your future career.
What Is an Owner-Operator?
There are two types of owner operators:
Freight Agent – An owner-operator is a licensed truck driver who owns their own vehicle and has their own operating authority through the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). This distinction is important because it separates a driver with a truck from an operator with a DOT authority.
Leased On – An Owner-Operator who much like the above however is attached to a company, The benefit of this is you’re running under the company’s authority, and may have benefits such as discounts on fuel, maintenance discounts, and takes care of the billing and paperwork. The con is you don’t have much control over routes and schedules and the company takes a cut of your profit.
USDOT authority allows an owner-operator to legally transport cargo for shippers on their own. They can do this without requiring a carrier (trucking company) to book and dispatch the load to them.
Is Trucking the Right Career for You?
If you’re wondering how to become an owner-operator trucker, it’s a good idea to do some reflection beforehand. Rather than thinking solely about the potential profit, you need to discern whether the trucking lifestyle is right for you.
The lifestyle that many over-the-road truckers (long-distance drivers) face can complicate family life. Those with pets, partners, or children can be gone for weeks at a stretch. This can strain personal relationships and even sometimes make mental health more difficult to manage. Someone who struggles with depression and loneliness, for example, may not do well on isolated long-hauls.
Your personal situation and life goals will influence how you feel driving full-time. Many people love the freedom of being an owner-operator — they get to set their own hours, see the country and explore new locations while earning a paycheck. They can listen to music, audiobooks, or podcasts during the day, then enjoy long breaks off-duty back home.
Though there is a great deal of freedom as a trucker, you still must maintain accurate records and perform a wide array of responsibilities. This doubles when you’re an owner-operator. Owner-operators are their own bosses, so they have to handle the driving and business side of trucking.
Their responsibilities include loading and unloading cargo, planning and optimizing their delivery routes, scheduling shipments, filing taxes, maintaining ELD compliance, and scheduling routine vehicle maintenance and repairs.
You will have to be highly detail-oriented and excellent at time management to maintain your operations. Handling all the costs of running a business, on top of being a driver, is a major responsibility that you may need to ease into. This is why many owner-operators start off as drivers with a carrier.
You’ll need to go to truck driving school to earn your commercial driver’s license (CDL) before you can find work. As of February 2022, all entry-level drivers must complete training before they can earn their Class A or B CDL.
Trucking school takes several weeks, but after a month or so of courses, you’ll be ready to sit for the exam in your state. After a written exam and driving test, you can earn your CDL, and then start applying for jobs.
To get your CDL, you must be at least 21 to haul cargo across state lines. You can earn your CDL at 18, but you will only be able to perform interstate jobs. You will also need to have a clean driving record, and pass a medical exam and criminal background check to get hired.
Secure Starting Capital
You could use cash upfront or apply for a business loan. This will depend on how much you’re willing to invest initially. Many owner-operators lease through a carrier, which allows them to acquire their own vehicle and run jobs for that company while still being their own boss.
A lease-on owner-operator has greater access to loads and job stability than one who is entirely independent with no connections in the industry.
If you decide to buy or lease your own truck separately, you can still look into leasing-on with a carrier to jumpstart your career. Each carrier has its own pros and cons. Many require owner-operators to pay for their own fuel and pay additional fees, such as closing costs and monthly payments.
Get Your Truck and Tractor
Leasing or buying a new truck takes time. You’ll need to decide what type of trucking is best for you first. For example, some drivers prefer to run local businesses that haul less-than-truckload (LTL) jobs with a pickup truck.
Dry van trucking attaches a trailer to a semi-truck, and it doesn’t require you to unload the cargo yourself. This is a good starting point for inexperienced drivers looking to make money as an owner-operator trucker fast.
While leasing a semi-truck and trailer can get you in the industry for a small amount, it doesn’t bring you any closer to having business assets. The only way to do that is to save up or use a loan to put a downpayment on your own rig. A new semi-truck costs up to $150,000, while a used model may be half the price.
Trailers and other equipment can be leased as well, but you’ll have to factor your monthly payments into your business model. Keep in mind that the skills necessary to operate this equipment must be practiced before taking on jobs.
Through the process of earning your CDL, you’ll not only learn the rules of the road for truckers but also how to safely operate different types of trucks and their associated equipment.
Become FMCSA Compliant
You’ll need to get a USDOT authority and MC number to operate as an OTR owner-operator. Another important component of how to become an owner-operator trucker is learning about ELDs. Electronic logging devices are required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
All truckers must have one installed on their vehicle to record important information about the truck’s and driver’s performance.
ELDs cost around $500 per truck plus annual subscription fees through a vendor. You can either purchase an ELD tablet or bring your own device (BYOD) and pay for an ELD app each month. On average, you should expect to pay around $40 per month, per vehicle, as an owner-operator for your ELD.
Obtaining your USDOT authority is a paper-heavy process. You’ll need to demonstrate your proof of registration, CDL, and insurance requirements before you are granted authority. The cost of DOT authority costs $300.
Research Niches in Your Area
To make money as an owner-operator in trucking, you’ll have to choose a niche that’s popular in your area. From moving services to agriculture, there are many types of trucking to choose from. The best way to maximize your revenue early in your career is to ensure you’re servicing industries that have ongoing demand near you.
You can use load boards to find freight to carry. Load boards usually require a monthly subscription ranging from $35 to $50 a month. These are the best way for new owner-operator truckers to find clients.
“Deadheading” in trucking is a term that refers to driving a semi with an empty trailer. Not only is it an expensive practice; but it’s also more dangerous. Deadheading semis are 2.5 times more likely to get into a road accident.
While it may seem inevitable, minimizing these moments is crucial to avoid overpaying for fuel and needlessly upping your truck’s mileage
For example, if you are driving freight from New York to California, you absolutely do not want to be driving a return trip cross-country with nothing attached to your truck. Make sure that you plan out your jobs carefully, and try to avoid deadheading as often as you can. You’ll not only earn more by scheduling jobs consecutively; you’ll also ensure your driving as safely as possible.
Set Up IFTA
IFTA is the International Fuel Trade Agreement, and staying compliant with it is an essential part of being a trucker. There are 48 states in the U.S. that adhere to IFTA guidelines, so you’ll need the appropriate tags if you want to operate.
The IFTA is required for you to submit fuel taxes as a motor carrier. IFTA taxes are due four times a year at the end of every quarter.
You’ll need to research IFTA regulations based on your state’s jurisdiction. You’ll need to first apply for an IFTA permit, then pay for the appropriate stickers. To improve your compliance and ensure you don’t face any fees, keep accurate mileage records and fuel logs for tax reporting.
Now that you know the basics of what it takes to be an owner-operator trucker, you can start planning your next move. Whether that’s signing up for truck driving school or getting a loan to buy your truck, you’re now one step closer to achieving your dream.
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