An Inside Look At The Life of a Van Line Operator

From busboy and golf ball washer to professional mover and English teacher, I’ve had many different jobs over the years.Each had its pros and cons, but being an owner-operator in the moving industry was far and away the most difficult and stressful.

It was backbreaking work, but at the time, I was young, fit, and adventurous.

In fact, I actually enjoyed working like a pack mule.

Being an owner-operator was difficult because I had to wear so many different “hats” every day.

To be successful, I had to be a–

  • Packer
  • Mover
  • Truck driver
  • Mechanic
  • Manager
  • Social worker
  • Referee

For me, the worst part was knowing that many of the things I relied on to make moves go smoothly were totally out of my control.

That said, this article isn’t about bashing the moving industry.

The van line system is amazingly efficient, and the companies I worked for took customer satisfaction seriously.

Looking back, some of the bad situations I encountered were my own fault, and I often handled them poorly.

Now with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s look at why it’s so hard for van operators to do a good job in the moving business.

But first…if you’re moving, here are some links that might help:

  • Moving Cost Calculator: Get a free, personalized, and instant estimate of your move. Just enter the date, size, and where you’re moving to/from, and we’ll instantly tell you how much your move should cost.
  • Best Moving Companies: Avoid the horror stories of shady movers by hiring verified and reputable moving companies. These are our picks.
  • Best Moving Containers: Sometimes, handling the move yourself is the way to go. You take care of the packing and loading. These companies manage driving. Here are the top options.
  • Best Car Shippers: Finding good car shippers is essential but hard to do. We found them for you.

Van Line Operators Hire Their Own Labor

When picking up and delivering shipments across the country, van operators usually hire labor from local agents (moving companies).

Some travel with spouses and their own helpers, but it’s rare.

Drivers determine how many helpers they’ll need based on the weight of each shipment and what additional services are required, but the workers usually aren’t employees of the moving company.

Instead, they’re often casual laborers who may or may not have had drug and/or background checks.

And in some cases, they’re pretty rough characters.

Sometimes, you’re asked to step in and help with other jobs.

A few days before Christmas of 1996, I’d just delivered my last shipment in Connecticut and was on my way home to spend the holidays with my family in Maryland.

Somewhere on Interstate 95 in New Jersey, the Qualcomm (onboard computer) in my trusty Freightliner started beeping.

My heart sank.

I should have hit the mute button and kept on driving, but curiosity got the better of me.

When I pulled over and checked, the message went something like this…

“We have a 22,000-pound shipment (full trailer load) loading tomorrow for a BIG national account customer, and you’re the only driver in the area who can do it. So can you help us out…please, please, please?”

Translation – the other 200 drivers in the mid-Atlantic region already said no.

Since I owned my own truck, I could’ve replied, “thanks, but no thanks.”

Instead, I acquiesced and grudgingly turned around.

Then –

  • I spent the night at a seedy truck stop near Jersey City (a tough and dangerous place)
  • When I woke up the next morning, it was snowing.
  • When I arrived at the agent, my four helpers looked like they were on work release or had just left a methadone clinic (nothing against ex-cons or recovering addicts)
  • The customer was an executive for one of the big Detroit automakers
  • The home was two hours away

In other words, it was going to be a long, long day.

Even with an experienced crew I knew and trusted, inventorying and loading 22,000 pounds would’ve been a 10 or 12-hour ordeal, maybe more.

But I didn’t know these guys nor trust them, and by the time we arrived at the customer’s home, it was after 10 o’clock.

And keep in mind, as far as I was concerned, I should’ve been enjoying hot chocolate and Christmas cookies with my family in Maryland, so I wasn’t exactly in the best frame of mind.

When you can’t trust who you hire, problems can occur.

I needed to take a detailed inventory of everything in the customer’s home, which would take at least 2 or 3 hours for a shipment that size.

Meanwhile, I had to find productive things for the crew to do so they weren’t standing around twiddling their thumbs.

The going rate for labor back then was $15 per hour or $60 per hour for four men.

But since I didn’t trust them, I couldn’t have them start loading the truck because if they damaged anything out of inexperience, carelessness, or downright malice, the claim would come out of my pocket, not theirs.

After all, as the driver, I was 100% responsible for whatever happened.

While I inventoried, I had them disassemble tables and beds, box the mattresses and box springs, shrink wrap the overstuffed furniture, and pad wrap small items like chairs and nightstands.

All told, the five of us lugged furniture and boxes from the two store home for nearly 12 hours in the snow and sleet, and eventually the darkness.

You can’t always predict the outcomes of your routes or moves.

Now more than 20 years later, the details are pretty hazy.

All things considered, the move could’ve gone a lot worse than it did, but it was one of the worst days in my life as an owner-operator.

When I dropped the crew back at the agent, it was nearly midnight, and though I’d had to micromanage them all day and do much of the heavy lifting myself, I paid each $160.

Or $640 for all of them.

I was also starving, but I only had $7 in cash left that I needed for the toll on the New Jersey Turnpike.

By the time I got home to Maryland, it was nearly 3 am and I was feeling like I was on death’s door.

When packing a van, space is money.

To maximize revenue, van operators have to load their trailers “high and tight,” or from floor to ceiling, leaving a few open spaces as possible.

Since their pay depends on each shipment’s weight (and mileage), the more they “cram” onto their trailers, the more money they make.

When packed and loaded correctly, household goods generally have about 7 pounds per cubic foot density.

However, in homes with heavy oak furniture and many books, this can be 9, 10, or even 12 pounds per cubic foot.

In average homes, though, good drivers can usually fit about 7,000 pounds of furniture and boxes into 1,000 cubic feet of space.

But on most shipments, the driver doesn’t pack him or herself.

Instead, employees or contractors of the local agent handle it a day or two beforehand, and in some cases, they “balloon” the packing.

Ballooning is when packers who could’ve done the job with 75 boxes use 90 or 100, and this almost always happens when they’re getting paid by the unit, not by the hour.

For some, it’s an incentive to use more cartons than necessary, which means that drivers can get less on their trailers.

This isn’t a frequent occurrence, but I experienced it a few times.

One Day in Cleveland…

Once I was loading a shipment in Cleveland and had just enough space to get it on the trailer.

Sadly for the customer, however, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to get everything on. I ended up leaving an overflow.

Later after weighing the truck, it became evident that I should’ve been able to get more on even though I’d filled every space.

Then came the calls from my dispatcher wondering why I couldn’t get everything on, to which I had no real answer.

A few days later, while delivering the shipment, it occurred to me that some of the boxes were light – too light.

In fact, some felt like they had almost nothing in them.

The customer and I began unpacking large boxes like wardrobes and 6 cubic foot cartons.

We found that the wardrobes were half empty,  with empty bottoms, and some of the large cartons contained tiny lampshades only.

In the end, the customer paid more than they should have, and the overflow became inconvenient.

It’s not always easy following DOT regulations.

Agencies like the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and federal and state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) regulate truck drivers.

The regulations they enforce are there to protect drivers and the general public, but sometimes they do the opposite.

Due to illogical rules, I often drove when I was tired and lay in the sleeper when I was wide awake.

Once I was 4 hours late for a pickup because I stopped in for a random inspection at a weigh station near Castaic, California.

The officer found a taillight on my trailer out. But he wouldn’t let me drive to the nearest truck stop to fix it.

Instead, I had to phone in a service call from a nearby truck repair company.

It cost me more than $150 for a $6 part.

Maybe I missed it when I did my pre-trip inspection.

Maybe it blew out just before the weigh station.

Who knows.

Either way, I was charged with a service failure as a result.

Operating a Van Line can put stress on friends and family.

Surprisingly, the divorce rate for truck drivers is less than 20% – far below the national average of about 50%.

Van operators don’t divorce any more frequently than doctors and software developers who are home every night.

However, being away from friends and families for extended periods can lead to feelings of isolation, depression, and hopelessness.

Pair that with the stresses and hassles, and for some (like me), life becomes unbearable.

And sometimes, you can only blame yourself for what goes wrong during a move.

In the end, I wasn’t particularly successful as an owner-operator in the moving business.

I did it for two years and had some memorable experiences, but changing professions was definitely the right choice.

Constantly being caught between customers, laborers, dispatchers, salespeople, and overzealous enforcement officials weren’t my idea of a good time.

After selling my truck, I worked as a sales representative for two national van lines for nearly 7 years.

These days I don’t technically miss the moving business.

It still interests me, but I’m happier writing about it from the comfort of my air-conditioned office.

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