If you love long-haul driving but are tired of answering to someone else, becoming an owner-operator could be a great career option. Running your own business allows you to pick and choose the jobs you want and use your own truck. But it comes with risks, too.
What is a Trucking Owner-Operator?
A trucking owner-operator owns and operates their own commercial trucking business. Instead of being employed by a company as a driver, an owner-operator runs the show with their own truck (or even a small fleet of trucks).
What Do Owner-Operators Do?
As well as doing the day-to-day driving, owner-operators have to handle all the other responsibilities of running a trucking business. This includes sourcing freight to haul, planning routes, organizing contracts, and maintaining vehicles.
How to Become an Owner-Operator of a Truck
There are several steps you need to complete to become a successful owner-operator:
- Secure Your CDL: All commercial truck drivers must have valid commercial drivers’ licenses (CDLs), so if you don’t already have one, that should be your first order of business. Here at Southwest Truck Driver Training, we offer courses in CDL Class A and B and endorsements.
- Gain Experience: The more truck driving experience you have, the better. It not only makes you a better driver, but it also exposes you to more roles and players in the industry.
- Develop a Business Plan: Outline your business goals, strategies, and financial projections. You should also take some time to consider any tax implications—for example, will you register as a sole proprietor, an LLC, or a corporation?
- Secure Financing: Running a business is expensive, especially in the beginning. In addition to getting your own truck—more on that next—you must budget enough to cover initial operating expenses and build a financial cushion for unexpected costs. You could use personal savings, loans, grants, or outside investors.
- Get That Truck!: It’s time to secure your own rig. You can purchase a truck outright if you have the cash, finance it through a loan, or lease it from a trucking company. (Some trucking carriers offer lease-purchase deals for their drivers who want an onramp to becoming an owner-operator.) When browsing what’s available, consider factors like the type of truck and its features, age, mileage, and maintenance history. Some financing companies, such as TopMark Funding, specialize in financing commercial truck purchases.
- Purchase Insurance: You need commercial truck insurance to cover liability, cargo, physical damage, and other potential risks associated with trucking. You must also obtain the necessary permits and licenses to operate your truck legally. This can include state and federal operating licenses, International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA) permits, and Unified Carrier Registration (UCR).
- Get Registered: As an owner-operator, you need to register with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and receive a Motor Carrier (MC) Number and a USDOT Number.
- Stay Organized: Set up a system for managing the day-to-day business, including tracking expenses, income, and mileage, as well as maintaining records for tax and regulatory compliance. Though you are likely already familiar with federal and state regulations, including hours-of-service rules, safety standards, and weight restrictions, you’ll need to know them even better to be able to show compliance as a business owner.
- Build a Client Base: Time to find some freight to haul. Network with shippers, freight brokers, and other potential customers or get access to load boards to secure hauls, establish relationships, and build your reputation as a great truck driver. And from there? The sky’s the limit!
Should I Become an Owner-Operator?
Becoming an owner-operator of your own business sounds great, right? It can be—but just like running any small business, it isn’t always easy. There are several steps to complete and pros and cons to consider.
If you’re already working as a commercial truck driver, you already have your CDL. If not, it’s an essential part of the process; the sooner you get it, the better. There are three different classes of CDL—A, B, and C.
- Class A allows you to operate the largest and heaviest commercial vehicles, including tractor-trailers or combinations with Gross Vehicle Weight Ratings (GVWR) of over 26,000 pounds each, with the towed vehicle weighing over 10,000 pounds each. If you have a Class A CDL, you can also drive Class B and C vehicles.
- Class B covers single vehicles with a GVWR of over 26,000 pounds each and vehicles towing trailers that don’t exceed 10,000 pounds each, such as smaller commercial vehicles and buses. A Class B license allows you to drive Class C vehicles, but not Class A.
- Finally, Class C is for vehicles holding at least 16 passengers (including the driver) or hazardous materials. It also includes vehicles with GVWRs of under 26,000 pounds that don’t meet Class A or B criteria.
As well as the standard CDLs in Classes A, B, or C, you can add endorsements to your license for certain types of vehicles or specific materials. Common endorsements include:
- Hazardous Materials (H): Lets you transport hazardous materials
- Tanker (N): Permits you to transport liquid cargo in tanks
- Tanker/HazMat Combo (X): Allows a Class A and B license holder to haul HazMat freight via tanker truck by earning both endorsements at once
- Doubles/triples (T): Permits a Class A driver to haul more than one trailer at a time
- Passenger (P): Necessary for operating vehicles designed to transport 16 or more passengers
- School Bus (S): Required for operating a school bus
As well as gaining your CDL and any necessary endorsements, you should aim to add other skills to your professional repertoire. These could include a strong work ethic, sound industry knowledge, lots of driving experience, organization, bookkeeping, and business savvy.
Pros and Cons of Being an Owner-Operator
There are tradeoffs in becoming an owner-operator in the trucking industry.
Pros of Being an Owner-Operator
- Higher Earning Potential: Because you work for yourself, you could earn more than company drivers. After expenses and taxes, you get to keep the profits.
- Independence and Flexibility: Having greater control over your schedule, routes, and loads means you might more easily balance work with your personal life.
- Variety: Because you’re picking your own hauls, you can be as flexible and varied as you like and are qualified to handle.
- Your Own Truck: You can drive the truck you want and customize it however you like. You’ll be on the road a lot, so why not make it your home away from home?
Cons of Being an Owner-Operator
- Higher Expenses: You’re responsible for all operational costs, including fuel, maintenance, insurance, and permits.
- Financial Risk: Since you bear all the financial responsibility, economic downturns, slow periods, or unexpected expenses can be stressful. You may also not have as many benefits and perks as you would as a company driver.
- Administration: Managing paperwork, tracking expenses, and regulatory compliance can be time-consuming and complex.
- Inconsistent Income: Pay can vary significantly based on things like market demand, load availability, and how good you are at securing contracts.
How Much Do Trucking Owner-Operators Make?
The salaries of trucking owner-operators vary significantly depending on many factors, such as the type of freight being hauled, the drivers’ levels of experience, the region in which they operate, and their business management skills.
What Extra Costs Do Owner-Operators Have?
Owner-operators have the potential to earn more than company drivers, mainly because they have more control over the business and don’t have to give anyone else a share of the profit. However, expenses such as fuel, maintenance, insurance, equipment payments, and other business costs eat into that profit, meaning take-home pay might not always be as high as you’d hope.
Owner-Operator vs. Lease Operator vs. Company Driver
Several other trucking positions are similar to owner-operator but not quite the same. Below, we break down how they differ.
- Who owns the truck? Owner-operator
- Who cares for the truck? Owner-operator
- Who pays the driver? Clients pay the owner-operator directly.
- What’s the salary? $320,484
- Who owns the truck? A carrier company owns the truck, which the operator leases over several years with the goal of eventually owning it.
- Who cares for the truck? Lease operators must maintain their own equipment and pay any of the costs incurred.
- Who pays the driver? Clients pay the trucking company, which deducts expenses before paying the lease-operator.
- What’s the salary? $319,205
- What else should I know? The driver must remain with the carrier holding the lease on the truck until the end of the lease agreement, despite any issues that may arise.
- Who owns the truck? The company employs the driver.
- Who cares for the truck? The company employs the driver.
- Who pays the driver? The company employs the driver.
- What’s the salary? $84,351
- What else should I know? Company drivers typically earn less than their self-employed counterparts. Still, they also often have less responsibility and risk to deal with. They also usually get health benefits and other perks, whereas owner-operators, lease-operators, and independent contractors may not.
Sources: Indeed.com (2023)