Should You Get a Degree or Drive a Truck?

Picture of a Truck & Tractor.  NOT public domain.  Rights belong to Matt Allen.

(Matt Allen / VitranCo.)

Admit it – when you woke up today you asked yourself this very question – “is it better to go to college or to become a truck driver?“. Well, so did we here at DQYDJ. Inspired by a Twitter conversation from our friends JT at MoneyMamba and Matt Allen at Rambling Fever, we had to ask… how much do recently minted college graduates make when compared to their truck driving contemporaries? I think we can fairly classify this as an ‘epic post’ – make sure you fully understand my methodology before complaining… then complain all you want in my comments section! Also read the follow up on Matt’s site – Driving a Truck or Financing a Degree?

Should You Get a Bachelor’s Degree or Drive a Truck?

Most of you know what a Bachelor’s Degree is but few of you probably know the qualifications behind driving a truck. Please direct your truck driving questions to Matt (who is a company truck driver). Here’s his summary of getting into his profession:

I actually started out by going to college, chasing after that ever important degree, just like everybody else. My problem was, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. The college I attended was a mere five hour drive from my home. My many road trips to and from college is where I learned that I absolutely loved being on the road.

Fast forward a few years, leaving out some of my life details, and I finally get my commercial drivers license (CDL) at age 22. A CDL can be obtained at age 18, but you have to be 21 in order to drive across state lines. Before being issued a CDL, one must pass a written test, a thorough truck inspection test, and a driving test. Truck driver training courses are available everywhere and last as little as three weeks or as long as an entire college semester. The course I took, through a local community college, was five weeks long and added 14 credits to my college transcript!

At age 22, I could have taken a job with just about any over-the-road trucking company, but I was more interested in having a life and chasing after women. It took me three years before I was finally able to get a ‘good’ local trucking job. I continued to work on a shipping dock at a factory during the day while I picked up part-time trucking gigs on nights and some weekends. This part-time work was necessary because most of the companies that hire local (home every night) drivers, and pay well, require at least 2 years prior (truck) driving experience.

I am now in my tenth year working for the same company, driving the truck pictured above. I earn a higher than average income for my profession, as you will see in the following data. I get to come home to my family each and every night, just like the guy who sits in his office cubicle every Monday through Friday. Comparing a trucker to a degree holding white collar professional might seem apples to oranges, but I believe a fair comparison can be made.

And here’s the data for 24-30 year olds. Remember, this is for people who are not in school (graduated) or are in the category listed in ‘Methodology’ (below). The hours and salaries are not dependent – I computed the quartiles separately for each variable:

Here’s the graph of 24-30 year old truck drivers versus degree holders for hours worked and income. Note that income is on a logarithmic scale while hours are linear.

Drive a truck or get a degree?  A graph of hours and income for the 24-30 crowd.

Methodology

If you are looking to reproduce my data set, it all starts with IPUMS-CPS. They did the hard work of cataloging the Census Bureau’s CPS data in a machine readable format so I could go to town with my stats package (R, if you are wondering).

I picked up the variables ‘income’ and ‘usual hours reported worked per week’ for 24-30 year olds. I tossed out the outliers – my data set only includes people who reported working 1 or more hours. This screens out people who were unemployed for the whole year. (If you don’t like it, complain. I know that unemployment is a huge factor. Better yet, run the unemployment numbers for me and I promise to link to you.) For my purposes, I included the category “Driver/sales workers and truck drivers” for my definition of “Truck Driver”. You can do whatever you want when you write your article.

Next I tossed out all the people who were still in school – I’m only interested in people who have already received a degree. This, of course, benefits the 24-30 year olds with degrees since theoretically truckers can get started at an earlier age (18 or 21, as Matt mentioned above). 24-30 also means we are talking about people in the beginnings of their respective careers (and the original prompt was for people just out of colleges). This completed my two data sets.

Next up? Curve fitting, which I did at ZunZun. ZunZun is great – it will curve fit up to 10,000 data points and it even lets you weight the data (which, of course, I did). I used the formulas that it found to be the best fit to determine the median/top quartile/bottom quartile for each segment in the population.

As JT pointed out, even though Bus Drivers and Industrial Machinery Operators have similar qualifications, bus drivers do bring down the earnings of “Truck Drivers” when they are included. Matt adds, “[b]us drivers and industrial operators are entirely different breeds”. That’s all I need! IPUMS-CPS has other categories if you are interested. Note that the code for ambulance drivers is ’911′. Nice.

Sources

Miriam King, Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Sarah Flood, Katie Genadek, Matthew B. Schroeder, Brandon Trampe, and Rebecca Vick. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Current Population Survey: Version 3.0. [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010.

Apples and Oranges

For all of the problems with comparing young degree holders and young truck drivers, we can say a couple things with absolute certainty:

  • If a degree holder and a truck driver work the same number of hours, the degree holder will make more money on average
  • Truck driving is highly dependent on the number of hours worked – the hours you put in determines the number of miles you drive which determines your pay (in many cases)

… but that doesn’t mean we answered the question. Remember the barriers to entry in a “Degree Mandatory” job (namely, 4 years in school at a high price!) are different from a truck driving job. Also, those who are motivated to work many more hours might be better off driving than working overtime on a salary job (in some cases, overtime at a salaried job only leads to indirect benefits like future promotions and not immediate pay increases).

Another important point is median personal income in the United States was $26,197 in 2010. 54.46% of 24-30 year old truck drivers earned more than that, as did 73.45% of all degree holders (in that age range).

Here’s Matt’s interpretation of the data:

Well, numbers don’t lie, do they? I guess my expert interpretation of this data is: if you want to work less hours and make more money, get a degree. That is exactly what I plan to tell my kids when they get older, by the way.

The hours variable to this case study is huge. Sure, I make a higher than average income as a trucker, but I rarely work less than 50 hours per week. Yes, I am rewarded immediately for my long hours via overtime pay. Salaried workers only have a wish or hope of being rewarded for extra hours by future pay increases or a promotion. Consider the ‘over-the-road’ trucker though. Most of these drivers are paid only for the miles they drive. When they are halfway across the country, waiting to get loaded or unloaded, sleeping at a rest area, or showering in a truck stop, they are not being paid. This could be where the apples to oranges part of this comparison comes in.

Judging by my experience, the age factor plays a big role in these numbers too. When I started my ‘good’ job at my current company, I was 26 years old, and by far the youngest of all the drivers. It typically takes 2 to 6 years to reach top pay at a job like this, depending on the company. My point is, you usually don’t see truck drivers in the 24 – 30 age range who have yet reached their full earning potential. Drivers in that age range are typically working their ‘starter’ jobs to gain that invaluable experience.

One more thing to consider… when you change jobs, comparatively speaking, circumstances are way different. Generally, when a white-collar degree holder changes jobs, they get to negotiate their new salary (usually higher) and benefits. When a blue-collar worker (like a trucker) changes jobs, they get to start on the bottom and hope that benefits will kick in after 3 months. Due to average time on the job for all workers, and a high turnover rate in trucking, this factor could have a major affect on the averages used in this data.

In conclusion, I agree that time-wise and money-wise, having a degree is more beneficial. But, most of these degree jobs take place inside office buildings, perhaps with cubicles and people looking over your shoulder. I’ll take my 18-wheel office over that any day. After all, in what other office can I let one rip whenever I want, listen to the radio all day long and even sing at the top of my lungs if I want to. I know this has nothing to do with the data, but sometimes you have to just throw the data out the window. In the end, it’s all about personal preference.

So, readers, what do you think? Should you drive a truck or go to college?

Comments

    • says

      You mean, “should I get a degree?”… or “should I get a degree or drive a truck?”?

      Yeah this was a fun one to do – all from some simple Twitter conversations! Glad you enjoyed it!

      • says

        Crazy how this came about, inspired by some random tweets.  I ‘met’ two PF bloggers who I had not yet interacted with (that I know of), and we somehow collaborated in less than a week to come up with this post.  Very cool stuff.

        • says

          The internet is a funny place! It was you and JT that inspired it… I’m just the numbers obsessed madman who thought it was doable, haha.

          We’ll have to do it again. And pay it forward – working with other writers on this stuff is 20x better than writing it on your own, heh.

  1. says

    Love how you highlighted (linked to) my tweet that “not everybody has what it takes though to be a dumb ole truck driver!”  The same can be said for obtaining a college degree.

    These stats and data are very interesting.  In the end though, each individual is responsible for their own income level, no matter what the profession.  You can make as little or as much as you want in any profession, depending on your motivation and drive to succeed.

    • says

      Yeah, thanks for the insider’s perspective – I drive a computer all day which is pretty absurd when you consider it!

      I enjoyed writing this article – so far it seems to be getting a fair amount of interest if GA is to be believed! Look forward to your follow up!

  2. says

    Epic post!!!
    Thanks for putting all the data together. I would still tell the kid to go to college if he has an idea of what he wants to do. The earning potential is higher with a degree. You’re right about job switching too. These days, we switch jobs a lot more often and a degree is better for that environment.
    I understand your preference though. I don’t think long haul driving for 8 hours is much more fun than sitting in a cubicle. Local driving sounds more interesting.

    • says

      I do enjoy the local gig. It’s fun interacting with customers and meeting new people. I often dream about getting out on the open road though… Getting paid to tour the country. Not a good option though for a family man like me with young kids at home.

    • says

      I also can’t blast my radio in my cubicle.

      Matt made a great point on the job switching – we sort of take it for granted now (I say this from the perspective of a Silicon Valley worker). Thanks for the compliments – and definitely check out Matt’s follow up coming soon!

  3. says

    I vote go to college, especially after reading all that. But of course those aren’t the only two choices, so my real vote is do what you’ll be happy at. And don’t go into debt doing so…

    • says

      Especially after reading all that?! Was it the data, or my explanation of the qualifications for trucking that swayed your opinion?
      While I am working long hours trucking, at the same time I am diligently saving in my kids 529 plans so that they won’t have to go into debt for their college educations. Good advice.

  4. says

    Exactly the kind of analytical yet entertaining post that I enjoy. Good stuff!

    I vote going to college, and for getting a graduate degree as well. However, pick very, very wisely – or you’ll be worse off that way.

    • says

      Yeah there is a point when the student loans you take out outweigh the benefits of degree-mandatory jobs. I sort of got into that with my Psychology/Fine Arts post, but I should probably follow up at some point…

  5. says

    Of course get a degree! It will pay more down the road. And hopefully it will be easier to find a job. I’d like to think that! Great post, superb writing! Really enjoyed it!

  6. Daniel Rockel says

    Talking with a local driver who has not driven over the road in this economy caused you to miss the reality of the broader industry.

    You are paid by the mile. So if you are in a 70 zone like SC and your truck is governed (limited) to 55 they just changed how much you can earn per hour to save them money on gas. If they mandate a certain fueling station that could force you to use slower roads that would lower your pay per hour again.

    If you have to wait for a load or the customer doesn’t have the load ready for you /not ready to receive, they want you to wait in the truck with the engine turned off regardless of temperature. You are not guaranteed a certain number of miles a month or when you’ll get home/ for how long once you do get home.

    On top of that hours of service rules not only limit how many hours you can drive a day (miles in those hours limited by goveror and mpg checks by your company) but number of hours in seven or eight consecutive days is limited, before your required 10 hours in your sleeper. Would you consider yourself working or off duty if you were required to sleep at a bunk next to your desk and could not leave?

    On top of that Overtime? no such thing you can’t even put in more hours at another job on the side or drive beyond hours of service rules. Even if you get home time your ability to drive based on hours of service rules is limited by on duty time including other jobs.

    Minimum wage? Notta. Things cost more where truckers are able to go to buy things and they are often compensated by lower pay than minimum wage workers. If you are left sitting your company is holding you hostage away from home with responsibility for your truck at $0 an hour. I have heard stories of people sitting for a week. If your company owns your truck and you quit. They’ll find someone to pick up your truck but they won’t give a ride home. Best start walking and hope you saved enough from your slave wages to buy a plane ticket home.

    • says

      You bring up good points Daniel, about the abuse that some companies inflict on their drivers. Which reminds me, I forgot to mention the whine factor in the trucking industry. All of this has little to do with the overall comparison though.
      The driver whose situation you explained probably makes a lot less for their time. This is offset by drivers whose situations don’t suck, thus the averages used in this post.
      Just like the college graduates, truckers (or anybody else) are ultimately responsible for their own situations regarding income. If you don’t like what you do, it is up to you and only you to change it!

    • says

      I wasn’t even aware of the different categories of truck drivers until I talked to Matt and started researching for this article. The CPS data picks up on all of the compensation styles however – and the majority of truck drivers of all types self-report 40 hours a week (I had expected more).

      Thanks for your comment!

  7. says

    I wonder what happens to the income comparisons when you subtract the degree holders’ student loan payments from their annual incomes. In that situation I bet a trucker would make significantly more.

    I know not everyone borrows money for college, but a LOT of people do.

    • says

      I won’t give away the stats Matt is using, but I’m sure he’ll give it a good run. Let’s use Kelli Space for an example though! (Control Your Cash has info on her, among other sites).

      If she exists, she took out $200,000 in loans. Let’s say that they were a decent rate, averaging 5.5%. You’re looking at $2,170.53 a month for ten years, or a $26,046.36 deficit.

      Yeah, most people don’t take out that much. Still – it’s possible to over-borrow and come out way ahead as a driver. Also consider, like Matt said, you can drive in-state once you turn 18.

      Opportunity cost! Thanks for the comment.

  8. says

    I must admit that when I sit in my open floor plan office with rows and rows of cubicles I sometimes get sick to my stomach.  I have not had a dream to drive trucks, but I have certainly wished I was far from my cube performing manual labor, working with my hands and the green earth.  A man can only push papers and build spreadsheets for so long before he craves a more tangible output; something he can touch, show others and be proud…

    • says

      Great comment.  I know I feel a sense of pride as a trucker, knowing that this country stops without truckers.  Think about anything you use or consume in any given day… it has probably been on a truck at one point or another.

  9. Dean Burke says

    This is not always an all or nothing proposal.  Truck driving can be a great way to see the country and bide time to help someone decide “what they want to be when they grow up.” Just like being in the military. 

    Nothing says truck drivers can’t go to school part-time, get their degree in business then start their own firm….

    • says

      I can honestly say that I’ve never heard that comparison… Trucking and the military?! Most truckers are in it for the long haul (pun intended). Some even love it and go so far as to proclaim that it (trucking) is in their blood!
      Although it is possible, it would be very difficult for a trucker to attend school. A set work schedule is rare in the trucking industry.

    • says

      When I was running the numbers I noticed there are actually a few truckers in the sample who had Bachelor’s degrees. If I’m not careful I’m going to have to run the numbers for them…

      Thanks for the comment!

  10. Anonymous says

    This is fantastic – glad I stumbled upon it. I have seen a lot of self-employed truck drivers (whom own their truck) and make well above-average salaries. For myself? I hate driving. But for others, it could make sense.

    • says

      Glad you stumbled in here! I enjoyed making this post, and discovering Matt’s blog.

      You’re not alone on the driving – I move my hours around to avoid the famous Bay Area rush hour traffic… not that I hate driving, but I don’t like sitting in my car. I imagine I’m not alone!

      Thanks for your comment!

    • says

      Truck owner/operators – that is where the risk/reward scenario applies to trucking.  It is a huge risk to take on the expenses of owning your own truck, but if you do it right the financial rewards can be plentiful.  

    • says

      So your neighbor isn’t one of the stereotypical truckers?  Always whining, complaining, pissing and moaning about his job?  It’s not always an easy life for truckers, but some of us do actually enjoy it!

  11. says

    I agree – go to college and get a degree.  Hourly workers can always make more by working more – but how much do you really want to work?

    • says

      That’s exactly why everybody should find what they love and do that for a living.  Whether it’s hourly or salary, you’re going to spend most of your life doing some kind of work.  It might as well be something you enjoy, and if that is the case, why not work more?

  12. says

    I’d vote for degree because it normally leads to more options.  But if someone loves driving then being a truck driver could be worth a shot!  It’s gotta be one lonely job though being alone for hours on end.  I wouldn’t mind the alone part too much, but I hate driving so it definitely wouldn’t work well for me!  -Sydney

    • says

      It’s actually not that lonely out there on the road, especially this day and age with everybody owning a cell phone.  There are actually some days that I long for the days before cellular technology so I could be ‘alone’ for awhile!  For the rare trucker who doesn’t have family or friends to talk to via cell phone, there is always the trusty CB radio.

  13. says

    When you talk about possibility does a truck driver has it more or a college grad? Hands down and eyes closed I will pick college degree, I don’t want to see any data. I can be what I am capable of, I don’t care what rest of the population achieved in the past. Being a truck driver would limit my options for growth.

    • says

      Well, by definition a college degree has more possibilities.  Even if you look at the data which I provide above you’ll see that at every single percentile the degree holder works the same (or less) hours and earns more.  25, 50, 75 – pick a point on the scale and there is a salary gap.

      If you earned a degree, no one is saying go back and become a truck driver.  You should certainly try to get into a job that suits your degree if you still enjoy it.  Still, that was the point of the article – should you get a degree (with the huge range of options available) or drive a truck (which is a very specific option).

      Thanks for your inputs; feel free to add on to them!

  14. says

    What’s your 20? I think whether you work in an office or drive a truck- we’re all sitting on our ASSETS! But at least with driving a truck- you get a change of scenery. My dad drove a truck- both cross-country and local- while I was growing up and I used to spend summers riding along.

    I know a lot of people who are driving trucks in their retirement just to have something to do or because their retirement money was wiped out and they have to work again.

    Options are always good- so if you have a worthless degree, got laid off or just can’t find a job- driving a truck is a good option. Could be a good option for a part-time job while getting a degree. Personally- I think I’d just go back to delivering pizzas (potential for free food)!

    Interesting comparison!

    • says

      Great comment! Wonder how many readers know what that first line means, c’mon? Glad you liked the comparison. I am working on another comparison, looking at this issue from a different angle. It’s a little delayed, due to the long hours I’ve put in this week, but will be up soon. Stay tuned.

      • says

        I know “10-4″?

        Also I used a CB radio a few times when I was younger and liked to try to figure out where “smokeys” were.  Interesting stuff!

  15. says

    Good post. I pretty
    much agree with the discussion here.  A
    job is not all about the money we make.  Other
    factors should be taken into consideration. For some, as an example, independence could be more important than a
    fair salary.  

    • says

      I don’t know that you automatically get independence as a truck driver – but I hear you.  My desk job sometimes seems absurd from 36,000 feet.  “Get paid to type” – haha, when you put it like that…

      Thanks for the comment!

  16. Mid Life Miser says

    very interesting post.  I’d like to see similar data with other “blue collar” professions…..electrician/plumber/etc..   In the end, do what makes you happy.  Most of us have degrees and feel that we must “use” them.

    • says

      We could do a series, probably… “what should a 24-30 year old do?”.

      Sounds like a good idea – I hope you don’t mind if I spread it out a bit…

      Thanks for the idea!

  17. thomasinventions says

    There is no good reason why college grads should earn so much more over non-college grads. It’s the lack of intelligence over those attributing wages that makes for the disparity, not actually ability.

    I propose shortening college to make it far more efficient, across all subjects and including professional type of programs like nursing. The typical person today is not swift to comprehend what I propose as so often people will remark that they would want a person in school for a long time to demonstrate to them some form of competence but they fail to understand that college is so much a waste of time in that most of what’s needed in an actual job relies so little on what was taught in college. And moreover, ordinary degree programs should be limited to something like 10% of the population, not an anyone can enter sort of thing as it exists today. We need to give the theoretical programs to the brightest, not to water down courses for the masses.

    I speak of this on http://tlextras.blogspot.com and http://proposedsolutions.blogspot.com where I also provide the solution to the employment problem faced today that should be so obvious to our leaders yet they are ignorant of it.

    What’s also worth noting and as I mention in my book “God Gave You a Brain; Use It!” is that union workers earn more than college grads. It’s an upside down world now. In addition, if you work for government, you will make on average 55% more than those in the private sector. If 20% of government employees were cut and the remaining paid at the level of the private sector, $17 trillion would be saved over 20 years. You must ask yourselves, is it a lack of intelligence that enables those to be elected into Congress?

    • says

      What about the STEM Majors, such as Engineers and Mathematicians? I recently featured this chart which gives the starting salary breakdown for students who graduate in those fields. Even with the lesser salaried fields, I would hesitate before putting a strict limit on the number of students that can matriculate – my opinion is that student education is more likely to shift students into other professions (perhaps even trades?) more than the heavy hand of government limits.

      In many cases, I could get behind accelerated degrees. I look at something like the third year in Law School – in many cases it is unnecessary for the field of Law the student ends up practicing. That’s just a single example, but I’m sure there are others.

      On Congress? Perhaps, but it either comes with (or comes ‘from’) a slick net worth figure.

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment!

  18. Christina says

    Great article… Im 22 & female. Earning my Bach degree in Criminal Justice March 2013. Been thinking about getting my CDL for sometime. I dnt hv any attachments so Im like wht the hell …. why not? Im currently unemployed as of this month. Only thing I worry about is… Will I have enough time to go to grad school? I want an income while continuing my education. I thought earning a CDL would be a great fit for me. Idk. Its just how I feel personally. Am I doing the right thing. In my mind I am any suggestions.. as far as being a trucker while in school etc.

    • says

      When you say, “I don’t have any attachments,” I’m assuming you’re thinking about becoming an “over-the-road,” trucker? I’m thinking it would be nearly impossible to finish grad school if you were out on the road all the time. A “set” schedule is a very rare thing in the trucking industry. You never know when you’re leaving or when you’re coming home. Even if there is some sort of schedule, it is always subject to change based on several factors that you can’t control. Attending classes while trying to be a trucker would be very difficult. The only alternative I can see working would be to utilize some sort of online schooling where you can complete requirements on your own time.

      If you could find some sort of local gig (like I have) where you work all day and come home every night, attending college while trucking could me much more feasible. Even then though, a “set” schedule is very hard to find. Say you have a class scheduled at 6pm and you usually get done working around 5. You just never know for sure when you’re going to get out. You might get held up at a shipper who takes a very long time to load or unload your truck. Your dispatcher might send you to one extra stop 40 minutes out of the way. You could get caught in foul weather. You could have some sort of mechanical breakdown or blow out a tire. All of this stuff happens in the trucking industry all the time. For me, there is no such thing as knowing what time I well get home each night.

      My suggestion, if you are going to try the local gig while attending school, would be to try to schedule classes before work if you can. If you think you want to be a trucker just until you finish school and then move on and get a job in the field related to your degrees, I don’t think I would hassle with it if I were you. If you think you might want to be a trucker just because you would enjoy it and possibly ditch the degree career – then I would say go for it! And read this hypothetical life example that I wrote as a follow-up to this post… http://money.ramblingfever.com/2011/12/driving-truck-vs-financing-degree.html

  19. Ramadan says

    hello,
    I need some ideas.

    I am thinking about going to become truck driver with prime inc. i apply and got approved, but did not call them yey. for now have 8-5 job. making $14/hr. but this is not enough for me, just thinking if i would make more money as truck driver.. any comments please.. ps i am 27, also thinking about going to college. i am confussed..

  20. colby says

    Do not go to truck driving school if ur smart work ur way up into truckin u get paid alot more startin out cause the school are place u work for cant take there big chunk out of ur hard hours

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *