Owner Operator Trucking Jobs
Many people who enter the trucking field dream of becoming their own boss someday as an owner operator. Not only do owner operator trucking jobs offer more autonomy and responsibility, but they have the potential for significantly higher salaries.
This guide covers the key differences between an owner operator and other truck driving jobs, how to become an owner operator, what the job entails, and the benefits and disadvantages of the role.
What Is an Owner Operator?
Owner operators are truck drivers with a commercial driver’s license (CDL) who have experience in company driving but want to have their own business entity. They use their own trucks and may work as contractors for larger carriers or find their own hauls.
An owner operator runs their operation as a small business and usually acts as the driver, manager, and sometimes employer. They run the day-to-day business operations and may lease out their services. Depending on how they set everything up, they operate under their own authority or that of a trucking carrier.
While some aspects of the positions may be similar, there are significant differences between owner operator trucking jobs and other commercial truck driving careers.
Owner Operator vs. Company Driver
A company driver is a regular employee driver for a trucking company. They don’t own the vehicle they drive, aren’t financially responsible for vehicle maintenance, and are usually paid per mile. Full-time company drivers often receive a competitive benefits package, including bonuses and healthcare coverage.
Unlike owner operators, company drivers don’t have the responsibilities that come with business ownership. Company drivers focus on transporting goods while owner operators must also handle finding loads, vehicle acquisition, maintenance and repairs, and administrative issues.
While owner operators may earn more than company drivers, a significant portion of their pay goes to running their business. They must earn enough to cover business and personal expenses, including securing their health insurance. Owner operators have the benefit of freedom in their work, but that reward comes with the risks of running a business.
Owner Operator vs. Lease Operator
A lease operator job is a hybrid between a company driver and an owner operator position. Lease operators lease a truck from a carrier and pay it off over several years. However, the drivers can only haul loads associated with the carrier they are leased to. Although the carrier may assist with fuel, insurance, maintenance, and repairs, some carriers expect lease operators to handle all related costs for their leased trucks.
Being a lease operator reduces some of the upfront costs of purchasing a truck while still giving operators some of the freedoms that come with business ownership. Working as a lease operator may be a good place to start if you are not yet financially prepared to purchase a truck.
Unfortunately, the disadvantages may outweigh the advantages of being a lease operator, especially regarding income. A Truth About Trucking survey revealed the majority of lease operators earn less than what the carrier advertised. For instance, 38% of lease operators were guaranteed earnings between $60,000-$100,000, yet only 21% made $66,000 or more.
In addition, lease operators are bound to the carrier they are leased to until the truck is paid off, whether they have work or not. This means that monthly truck expenses may be more than the income a lease operator can bring in if the carrier can’t provide enough miles.
Owner Operator vs. Independent Contractor
These terms are often used interchangeably, but there are some significant differences. While owner operators are always independent contractors, the reverse isn’t necessarily true—not all independent contractors are owner operators.
The key differences between the two roles lie in truck ownership, operating authority, and control. Independent contractors don’t always own the truck they drive and may lease it from the carrier they’re working with. If they decide to leave the company, they can’t bring their truck because they don’t own it.
An independent contractor signs on with one carrier that provides them with operating authority and loads. In exchange, independent drivers may have to give a percentage of their earnings to the carrier. If you leave the company as an independent driver, you lose your operating authority to transport freight legally.
On the other hand, owner operators have the operating authority to legally haul freight throughout the United States without being contracted with a carrier. And, owner operators keep 100% of the revenue they earn from hauling loads.
Both classifications have their pros and cons. Leasing with one carrier as an independent driver means you don’t have to worry about finding loads, as the carrier schedules those for you. Carriers may also take care of some of the truck driving costs. Operating under your own authority gives you complete control in deciding the freight you haul. However, this independence also comes with the responsibility of finding and obtaining those loads.
What Does an Owner Operator Do?
As a business owner, an owner operator has a variety of responsibilities in addition to hauling loads. An owner operator’s duties may include:
- Finding loads
- Transporting goods
- Loading and unloading freight
- Establishing work schedules
- Scheduling pick-ups and deliveries
- Maintaining and repairing vehicles
- Maintaining documentation demonstrating regulatory compliance
- Keeping tax records
- Recording and managing expenses
- Obtaining licenses and insurance
Owner operators may manage themselves, or they may employ a few drivers. Owner operators can work with one company or work with several while operating under their own authority.
Do Owner Operators Make Good Money?
Owner operators may be able to secure a high income. According to Indeed, as of 2022, the average owner operator salary is around $143,608 per year in the United States. Salary.com lists a salary range between $134,173 and $167,292 depending on experience, time in the field, and other skills.
While their gross earnings may be significant, owner operators also must consider the vast business expenses they will have to account for. These costs include purchasing a truck, vehicle maintenance and repair, insurance, healthcare, and taxes. With these expenses in mind, owner operators’ take-home pay may only amount to around $80,000.
Becoming an Owner Operator
The route to becoming an owner operator career may look different for every truck driver. But the following steps can serve as a general guide to becoming a successful owner operator.
1. Assess Your Situation
- Do you have your CDL and any necessary endorsements?
- Are you financially equipped to run your own business?
- Do you have expert knowledge of the trucking industry and motor regulations?
- Do you have a wide network of industry connections?
- How is your physical health? Can you handle being on the road for long periods?
- What are your family and home situation like?
2. Create a Business Plan
Set up a business plan to clearly summarize your needs and goals. This may help with securing financing. You should also determine your business structure, whether a sole proprietorship, limited liability company (LLC), or corporation.
3. Save and Plan
Save enough money to cover your first six months of business expenses and research lines of credit and financing options should you need them. Start planning to determine how you’ll operate your business, including how you’ll secure loads and handle back-office tasks and if you’ll have employees.
4. Purchase Your Equipment
Decide whether you want to lease, lease-to-purchase, or buy your truck.
5. Obtain Your USDOT and MC Numbers
Apply for the necessary trucking licenses, usually a U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) number and a motor carrier (MC) number—also referred to as operating authority.
Depending on your specific situation, you’ll also need to look into various safety and compliance regulations, including:
6. Get Trucking Insurance
Legally, you’ll need primary liability coverage to run your business. You may also want to purchase other types of coverage, such as cargo or bobtail insurance (liability insurance for driving under someone else’s operating authority when not hauling a trailer).
7. Know the Golden Profit Ratio
Determining whether your business is successful means knowing your profit margin. You can calculate this by dividing your gross profit, which is your total revenue minus your business expenses, by total revenue. Experts suggest your profit margin should be between 10-20%.
How Hard Is It to Be an Owner Operator?
Being an owner operator takes a considerable level of business savviness. You’ll need to have a strong work ethic, considerable knowledge of the trucking industry, significant discipline, meticulous bookkeeping and organizational skills, and an entrepreneurial spirit.
Some of the challenges you may experience being an owner operator include:
- Unstable income
- Finding loads
- Managing business expenses
- Maintaining a 24/7 operation
- Staying current with trucking industry regulations and laws
Some owner operator trucking companies specifically hire owner operators to haul their freight. These 100% owner operator fleets provide many of the tools and support owners need to run a successful business.
Pros and Cons of Being an Owner Operator
Being an owner operator is challenging work but can be a rewarding, lucrative career once you get in the rhythm of working for yourself. Some of the benefits and disadvantages of this career include:
Pros of Being an Owner Operator:
- Considerable independence and control over the work you do
- A flexible schedule—work when you want and take time off when you need
- The ability to choose what you haul and which companies to work with
- A sense of purpose and satisfaction from owning and running your own business
- The potential for a much higher income ($2-$3 per mile) and financial independence
- Control over what type of truck you purchase and drive
Cons of Being an Owner Operator:
- Extensive start-up expenses
- A lack of job security and a less reliable paycheck
- Significant business expenses that can decrease your take-home earnings
- Having to find your health insurance
Is Being an Owner Operator Worth It?
Online forums on the subject suggest your success of being an owner operator depends on your personal situation and skill set. While some owner operators feel that the challenges outweigh the benefits, others happily take on the responsibilities of an owner operator in exchange for the freedom of working for themselves.
Marianne Bigelow, a retired accountant, outlines her and her husband’s owner operator experience on Quora. After six months, the business expenses topped $5,000, so her husband went back to being a company driver. “If we were to do it again, I would buy a newer truck and pay cash for it. We went in way under-capitalized,” Bigelow writes. “I also wouldn’t buy the truck until we had a good solid run with opportunities for back haul. Deadhead miles don’t pay. Healthcare was an issue for us – I had to cover the entire family which was pricey.”
Marlin Woosley, a former trucking training and safety manager and company driver, didn’t take the leap himself but worked with many owner operators who did very well. He found that a successful owner operator has two key attributes: “First, they don’t have a lot of debt tied to their equipment so cash flow is never an issue when they need repairs or are sitting idle for some other reason.”
“The absolute happiest owner that I ever met saved enough money, over ten years as a company driver, to pay cash for his own new truck,” Woosley writes on Quora. “Second, many of the most content owners are usually backed by Y E A R S of experience and doing mostly specialized freight hauling. By that I mean open freight and over-dimensional freight.”
Resources for Owner Operators
Owner operators can access a wide variety of resources to help them succeed as truck drivers and business owners.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration
This Department of Transportation division provides information on CDLs, regulatory compliance, research and technology, and safety. Check out the registration link to learn about getting your operating authority.
American Trucking Associations (ATA)
The ATA is a nationwide trade association that represents and advocates for truck drivers from every sector, including owner operators.
Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA)
With more than 150,000 members, the OOIDA is an international trade association that represents the interests of owner operators and truck driving professionals.
Partners in Business
In addition to a comprehensive newsletter and numerous articles and tips on being an owner operator, Overdrive and ATBS created this hefty business manual for aspiring and current owner operators.
Watch This Before Becoming an Owner Operator
The YouTube video from ET Transport provides an in-depth guide on becoming a successful owner operator. And don’t skip the 500+ comments—many provide valuable information from experienced owner operators who’ve been there.
Weekly Gasoline and Diesel Fuel Update
This resource from the U.S. Energy Information Administration can keep you in the know on local fuel prices.
Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT)
Join the fight against human trafficking by taking TAT’s training course and learning how to identify and report potential trafficking situations while you’re on the road.
National Traffic and Road Closure Information
Plan your routes by staying informed on which highways may be closed or experiencing traffic issues. You can access highway and road conditions reports by choosing the state(s) you’ll be driving through.