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December 15, 2017 12:30 PM, EST

Hardworking Drivers Key to UPS Delivering 750 Million Packages This Holiday Season

UPS Inc.

Technology has made it easier than ever to buy gifts online and track the spoils of your spending spree as they make their way from retailers’ warehouses to your doorstep in time for the holidays.

But for all the talk of packages being delivered by drones, this year’s record-setting online sales still depend on humans to handle the last leg of the journey — people like Dave Knudsen, who will spend the final weeks of the year battling traffic and unpredictable Chicago weather, speed-walking up and down driveways and across lawns while lugging everything from T-shirts to TVs.

A UPS Inc. driver for more than three decades, Knudsen, 54, of St. Charles, Ill., will carry thousands of the nearly 2 billion packages shipping companies expect to deliver this holiday season.

Want a front row seat to see online holiday shopping’s thriving role in the economy? Spend just an hour in the fold-down seat next to a driver, as I did last week while Knudsen steered his boxy brown truck around Geneva, a route he’s had for the past 28 years.

Some forecasts have estimated online holiday sales will top $100 billion this year, and UPS, FedEx and Amazon alone are expected to hire more than 250,000 seasonal workers to help cope with the spike in online orders.

UPS ranks No. 1 and FedEx No. 2 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest North American for-hire carriers.

The sheer size of the holiday surge took UPS by surprise, leading to slight delays and more overtime for many drivers during a post-Cyber Monday backlog the company said has since cleared.

RELATED: UPS says deliveries are back to normal after shopping surge

UPS expects to deliver 750 million packages worldwide between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. FedEx is anticipating 380 million to 400 million, while the U.S. Postal Service said it will be busier still, delivering nearly 850 million over the holidays, including nearly 200 million packages per week between Dec. 11 and 24.

For drivers like Knudsen, that can mean routes with more than twice the typical number of stops. His average day includes about 140. But between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, “average” jumps to 300, with a couple of days topping 400.

On his busiest day during the week after Thanksgiving, he delivered 650 packages, according to the small black notebook where he records each day’s total. If trends from prior years hold, the week before Christmas will be even busier.

Knudsen has worked for UPS for 37 years, 32 as a full-time driver. He was too nice to say so, but there’s no question a visitor on his truck slowed him down.

That’s because there is only room for two people in the truck, and I claimed the seat normally taken by his son David Knudsen, 22, one of UPS’s 95,000 seasonal hires. David Knudsen works as a driver helper while on break from business classes at Northwood University and runs packages to doors, sorts boxes in the back and generally speeds things along.

Every action took me a few seconds longer than the elder Knudsen, even fastening my seat belt after each stop. When you’re making hundreds of stops a day, those seconds add up.

Knudsen’s day starts at 8:45 a.m. at UPS’s Addison distribution center, though he often shows up early to check out his route and see how the truck — the same one each day — is loaded.

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Dozens of packages are lined up along two shelves that run the length of both sides of the truck, organized with boxes for the earliest stops closest to Knudsen’s seat and the last stops in the back.

“They load it up with eight hours’ worth of work,” he said.

Deliveries to businesses are usually handled in the morning and residential drop-offs in the afternoon. At each stop, he uses a handheld device to scan each package, recording when and where it was left. The scanner also lays out each stop on the day’s itinerary.

Routes are designed to be as efficient as possible, Knudsen said, but there is some flexibility if he knows a customer needs an early arrival. Sometimes, that’s a business that needs a shipment ASAP, but he’s also helped a cigar enthusiast who liked to get his shipments before starting his second-shift job, he said.

The subdivision we drove around has lots of 20- and 30-somethings with young children, who order items online year-round, Knudsen said. “It’s so convenient, why wouldn’t you?” he said.

That afternoon, the truck held plenty of boxes from Walmart and Amazon. One house got six identical boxes marked with the name of a nursing products-maker, but most packages are nondescript brown cardboard.

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Knudsen frequently gets asked whether he thinks about what’s inside those boxes, but he stopped pondering that 30 years ago.

He’s gotten to know the residents on his route over the years, and said hi to the handful of passers-by out on a weekday afternoon. The neighborhood has some delivery driver-friendly perks, like homes with overhanging porches and bushes — the kinds of places drivers look for to shield packages from the elements. At others, he slipped lightweight boxes under a welcome mat or behind a hinged glass door.

Still, there are some hazards. He stumbled on a strand of Christmas lights while crossing a yard decked out for the holidays, and he warned me about one home’s painted concrete walkway, a surface he says is deceptively slick. And while the only dogs we encountered were behind locked doors, where they could only bark, Knudsen said he once had a run-in with a pair of feisty Chihuahuas who tore his brown pants.

Most drivers carry treats to befriend dogs on their routes, Knudsen said. He’s partial to keeping a supply of vanilla wafers from Aldi — they’re cheap and the dogs seem to like them, he said.

Most people don’t appreciate how physically demanding the job is, he said. It was about 30 degrees, but Knudsen decided to forgo UPS’s insulated brown jacket in favor of a lightweight long-sleeved shirt.

Every box, regardless of size or weight, is moved by hand. Even if a driver opts to roll a delivery to the customer’s door on the hand truck hanging by the racks of boxes, he or she still has to lug it to the sidewalk. With 300 stops a day, the pounds add up.

Knudsen credits good genes for his ability to keep up, along with the daily routine. Even if you don’t feel great in the morning, “you’ll work out the kinks by noon,” he said.

“This time of year, you go to bed early, and you do what you need to do to not get sick,” Knudsen said.

The work itself doesn’t change much during the hectic holiday weeks, although his route gets condensed. Knudsen covers a little less territory, but spends more time hopping on and off the truck through the passenger-side door, left open for easier exits.

Before I left, he thanked me for managing to not fall out as we made our way through the winding neighborhood streets.

The bigger loads continue all the way to Christmas Eve, thanks to new expectations around last-minute delivery. When Knudsen started at UPS, drivers typically finished Christmas Eve rounds by noon. Now, it can stretch to 6 p.m.

“Santa still gets the credit,” he joked before I left to let him continue the route with his son David. “We do all the work, and he gets all the credit.”

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