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November 3, 2014 3:15 AM, EST

Senior Drivers Staying Behind the Wheel

Prefer Life on the Road to Retirement
By Mindy Long, Special to Transport Topics

This story appears in the Nov. 3 print edition of Transport Topics.

Truckers such as Bill Compton, Tom Camp, Henry Bates and Al Weddle have more in common than their love of the road.

None of them has plans to retire, despite being well beyond the normal retirement age in the United States, which is between 65 and 67, in the Social Security Administration’s view.

“If you’re in good health and can pass a physical and know you’re doing a good job, I feel like a person is better off to keep working,” said Compton, 76, who has worked for 34 years at Con-way Truckload, based in Joplin, Missouri.

Weddle, 83, has spent 57 years with Overland Park, Kansas-based YRC Freight, driving out of the Albuquerque, New Mexico, terminal. He said he’d be bored if he weren’t on the road.

“I don’t have anything else to do other than about six months of working around the house and the yard or working on my old cars,” Weddle said.

Camp, 74, is the senior-most safe driver for UPS Inc., where he has been behind the wheel for 52 years. Today, he delivers packages in Livonia, Michigan, for the Atlanta-based company.

“Retirement isn’t for everybody,” Camp said. “Working gives you something to look forward to in the morning.”

Bates, 84, an owner-operator from International Falls, Minnesota, has driven for MinStar Transport Inc. since 2008. He enjoys the work but also relies on the money.

“I don’t make that much with a Social Security check,” he said.

Carriers said more and more drivers are continuing to work as they age.

Bob Costello, chief economist for American Trucking Associations, said that, based on his analysis of more than 700,000 tractor-trailer drivers, including for-hire and private fleet drivers, 47% were over the age of 50. He didn’t have any data on how many were older than 60.

“Their health is there, and they want to work,” said Mitch Lilly, senior vice president of labor and employee relations for YRC Freight, a unit of YRC Worldwide, which ranks No. 5 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers. “We seem like we have more in that 40-and-over-years-of-service category than we once did.”

Bert Johnson, vice president of human resources for Con-way Truckload, a unit of Con-way Inc., which ranks No. 4 on the for-hire TT100 list, said the average age of truck drivers is continuing to grow.

The average age “is 48 now and roughly 21% of commercial truck drivers are in the neighborhood of 55 to 65,” he said.

Pete Dannecker, director of loss prevention at A. Duie Pyle, based in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and No. 82 on the for-hire  TT100, said: “I am seeing people who want to work. Some retire and then say, ‘Hey, I’d like to drive a little longer.’ Other drivers are looking to softly retire, and we’re going to take advantage of that.”

A. Duie Pyle driver Walter Baumert, 74, officially retired and moved to Florida from New Jersey three years ago. “Retiring was great, but it gets boring after a while,” he said, adding that he travels back to New Jersey about four times a year and works for A. Duie Pyle for about a month at a time. Baumert simply calls his terminal manager and lets him know when he’ll be ready to work.

“When I’m in Florida, I can’t wait to get back up to New Jersey and work again. I don’t need to do this. I want to do it,” he said.

Carriers said older drivers bring value to the company. For example, they tend to understand how freight moves across the country, Johnson said.

“They know how to plan themselves so they can make the most efficient use of their time. They’re also more aware of the ups and downs as it relates to sleeping,” he said.

Ernest Williams, 81, a driver for Miami-based Ryder Dedicated, started driving in 1959. He has been with Ryder for 22 years and has served the same dedicated account in Knoxville, Tennessee, for 13 years.

David Smelcer, a logistics manager for Ryder Dedicated, a unit of Ryder Supply Chain Solutions, which ranks No. 11 on the for-hire TT100, said Williams “takes care of the customer unlike anyone else I’ve ever worked with.”

Smelcer added that Williams works unsupervised, and sometimes they’ll go a week or more without talking to him.

“He is down there by himself breaking freight, loading freight, delivering freight. You know Ernest is doing what he is supposed to be doing,” Smelcer said.

That’s the kind of dedication to getting the job done that can be counted on from older workers that companies welcome, said Angela Buchanan, vice president of safety and human resources for Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Melton Truck Lines.

“I wish I had 100 of them because they are so experienced and skilled and they figure it out,” she said, adding that older drivers tend to be more careful. “Their bodies talk to them a little bit and from a work-safety standpoint, they are very careful about how they work. From a driving perspective, they become a little more patient.”

Carriers said they haven’t seen the need to require age-specific trainings for drivers. Dannecker said, “The standard DOT physical and their excitement and will to work are all we’ve needed.”

Con-way often asks older drivers to conduct trainings. “They understand the dangers, so we ask them to lead the demonstrations on many things,” Johnson said.

Con-way also pairs new drivers with experienced drivers so older drivers can share their knowledge and serve as a mentor.

“The new drivers can call on a regular basis to get answers and help solving any problem,” Johnson said.

At FedEx Custom Critical in Green, Ohio — a unit of FedEx Corp., which ranks No. 2 on the for-hire TT100 — Terry O’Connell, 72, uses his experience to help other drivers as a field safety liaison. He took on the position five years ago after driving over-the-road for 19 years. Now he logs 50,000 miles a year in a Sprinter van traveling the country to review safety issues and policies with the company’s custom-critical drivers.

O’Connell came to truck driving after 30 years of service in the U.S. Coast Guard.

“I find it so rewarding in the latter years of my life to make a difference. I thought my years of making a difference were over when I left the Coast Guard,”

he said. “I could sit home and watch Law & Order reruns, perhaps, but that would be of no value to society.”

Older drivers often have impressive safety records.

“Just because they’ve been around for a long time and driven a lot, it doesn’t mean they’re unsafe,” said YRC’s Lilly, adding that a driver’s age doesn’t affect insurance costs. “More importantly, it is the safety record of the company more than the age of drivers.”

Weddle has logged 5,830,000 safe miles, and Compton has more than 4 million.

Ryder’s Williams was recently honored for having 1 million safe miles at the company, but he said he has no idea how many miles he has logged in his professional driving career. “I wish I’d kept a running total of the miles I’ve traveled in my lifetime, but I never even thought of it when I was younger,” he said, adding that he has driven in 48 states, six Canadian provinces and Mexico. Bates admits he doesn’t push it as hard as he used to and prefers not to drive overnight.

“I find nighttime driving and backing up harder, and I don’t care as much for the loading and unloading, but you have to service every load,” he said.

Williams said that he has gotten used to the physical aspect that comes with being a professional driver and loading freight is no harder today than it was when he started. “There are tricks of the trade you learn,” he said.

Compton has cut his workweek to four days. “The company said that I’d paid my dues and it is fine,” he said.

Even though drivers said they don’t want to retire, they know they will have to, eventually. Ralph McDaniel, 72, recently retired from Melton Truck Lines to help care for his wife but said he hadn’t ever planned to stop driving. “When I reached 65 and went on Social Security, that was just another milestone to pass. I still wanted to drive,” he said, adding that he’d go back on the road in a heartbeat.

Bates said, “Just like there is a beginning to everything, so is there an end. You can’t figure you’ll drive forever."