Thursday, August 4, 2011

Entering the border zone

Running a regular route to a warehouse near the U.S.-Mexico border, it took years before Mike – not his real name – was approached by drug runners.

During the last few years, Mike said, the border changed.

First, the U.S. side tightened up. Mexican smugglers approached legitimate trucking company drivers on the American side to smuggle cash south of the border and drugs into the U.S.

“They’re weren’t even hiding it anymore,” Mike said. “It’s getting scary down there.”

At one point, Mike said smugglers approached his girlfriend, then a truck stop waitress in Laredo, TX.

“A guy said, ‘we’ve been asking your boyfriend pretty nicely to do things, and we just wanted to come by and say ‘hi,’” Mike recounted. “’Maybe you should tell him to consider the job we’re talking about.’”

Though Mike left the border area more than a year ago, he still has friends who work there, and he wonders how safe they will be as the U.S. DOT pushes the cross-border trucking program, and cartel influence seems to spread in both the U.S. and Mexico.

A recent report from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police says the expansion of cross border trucking is likely to create a turf war between cartels, upsetting the status quo that has seen record truck cargo thefts in recent months on the Mexican side.

Referencing the pending White House decision to enact cross-border trucking for Mexican drivers, the report says cargo distribution will move further to inland ports, and that cross-border trucking could create a turf war between Canadian and Mexican criminal groups.

“Competition may create a realignment at the border, with Mexican criminals moving cocaine north and Canadians moving marijuana and cash south into the U.S.

Much like the old show “Dragnet,” this blog post has changed Mike’s actual name to protect the innocent. He is a veteran trucker and OOIDA member who asked Land Line to not use his name.  He had a regular run to Laredo, TX for 12 years, only stopping in 2009 after he says the job’s proximity to major drug running worried him.

“I stopped going down there – it’s just too dangerous,” Mike said.

And Mike isn’t the only OOIDA member to recently call in after run-ins with drug smugglers. The Association’s Business Assistance department spoke with another member last month who had drugs planted in his load near the border in Texas.

The problem has become so prevalent that three years ago, Texas Gov. Rick Perry created the Texas Hold ’Em program for state troopers to educate U.S. truckers about the perils of smuggling, and point out how often American drivers were being propositioned to haul drugs.

The program also gives Texas the authority to yank CDLs from drivers convicted of hauling illegal drugs.

In June’s American Shipper, the shipping magazine points out that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol are shifting freight inspection responsibilities over to private freight brokers.

“CBP wants brokers to have increased responsibility for vetting clients and strengthening requirements for proof of identity necessary to execute a power of attorney,” says the article. “By operating under the compliance umbrella of a knowledgeable broker, or possibly allowing the broker to audit its compliance practices, smaller companies could become eligible for the Importer Self-Assessment or other partnership programs, and receive benefits such as reduced oversight and documentation requests.”

Increased freight volume means increased responsibilities for private shippers, brokers, and freight forwarders, the article shows.

Unfortunately for residents of both nations who live near the border, and for law enforcement personnel, the drug trade won’t be standing in the way of economic progress through cross-border trucking.

Drug trade will be riding shotgun.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Career planning

I read an ad in Chicago Sunday paper
Said help wanted, semi driver needed bad,
I walked in and said, I’d like to see the foreman.
I told him all the experience that I’d had,
He said son, you’re just the man I’m needing.
He handed me the keys then shook my hand,
Pointed to the truck and said I’ll see you --
Take that load of steel to Birmingham.
I finally got inside and got it started, put it in a gear and started backing up,
Tried every way to get going forward but I ain’t never drove a big ole truck.

Those first lines of the late Lester Flatt’s song “Backing to Birmingham” must make a lot of us in my generation thinking back to how we started trucking.

Back then it was pretty easy to qualify. Just have a driver’s license, if it was a little shaky, just go to another state and get a new one. The tough part was getting someone to give you a chance. If you grew up in the business, or came off the farm, I think that was probably the easiest way. 

I got my break when I went for a ride-along with a driver to Mexico for a load of brick. We spent the night on the border and when it was time to go he the put me in the seat, got us started and told me not to speed or hit anything then promptly passed out in the bunk.

Now we come to a young man that my wife Geri and I know. He’s wanted to be an Indiana State Trooper since he can remember and he was running his plan by me the other day. As far as high school, he probably didn’t major in phys ed, shop and study hall like I did, but he’s taken a lot of courses to help prepare him. He told us that joining the National Guard and getting involved in its military police training is part of his plan to get to the State Police Academy. He’s getting some hands on experience like working part time at the jail, doing ride-a-longs with local police, being called out on accidents. It will give him an idea of what he’s getting into.

Do you know what this young man has in common with my generation, and those before who got into trucking anyway we could? It’s simple. We could decide that this ain’t my bag after all and simply walk away without sinking a load of cash into it. Of course, our aspiring trooper will have his National Guard obligation, still a positive as he is still getting training, serving his country and being paid. But the point is: he could still graduate from the Indiana police academy, go out on the force and decide it wasn’t for him after all and walk away with no obligation, financial or otherwise.

Not so much with aspiring truck drivers today. It must appear to a trucking career wannabe that the only way to break into the business is going to a truck driver school. And that means getting a student loan or sign with a carrier that will train you. That comes with an obligation to work for them for a certain amount of time and if you don’t stick it out you’re obligated to repay them for the schooling.

I can just imagine a new driver being turned loose only to find this isn’t working. Especially kids from the inner cities. I can imagine how lonely and frustrating it could be for some. Not making hardly enough to cover advances and other deductions. What’s he or she do? Quit and find another job and start paying back that student loan?  That’s called paying off a dead horse. And it’s another of the many reasons for the driver shortage.

Entry level training is a good thing, but trucking school is not the only way to get into trucking.

There’s no real way of preparing for life on the road – being away from home, the congestion, the aggravation, the inconveniences and all – but if you want to make trucking your career, you need to hang out in the industry a while to see if it suits you. Find a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or a fringe job that can introduce you to the trucking world.

If you don’t like it, you’ll know before you make a big commitment or get upside down in a big loan.