When Earnest Parker Jr. wanted to go to college, his parents did not have the money.
Now he is earning more money than many college graduates — by owning and driving trucks.
After five years of steady work and savings, Parker had amassed enough money in his 401(k) retirement plan, with the help of his employer, who matched his contributions, to buy his first truck. He put down $3,000 on a W900 Kenworth for $110,000.
Parker bought a second truck, a Freightliner Century, for $30,000 in November. With unmistakable pride, he jokes that his fleet “grew by 100 percent.”
Working near Statesville, N.C., just north of Charlotte, Parker does not believe his lack of a degree has held him back.
”For the money that I’m making, I probably wouldn’t be doing too much better even if I did go to college,” he said.
After paying all expenses, Parker takes home about $750 per week (roughly $39,000 per year).
”I’m pretty happy,” he said. “Everybody always feels they could get a little more, but I look at what I can provide for my family and I’m really not in need.”
Parker can provide hope to the growing number of Americans who cannot afford to attend college, but do have smarts, drive and ambition. He is playing his cards right, said Dr. Michael Walden, a professor of economics at North Carolina University.
While many young people stress out about college debt and struggle to find jobs, many industries — like trucking — have good-paying jobs and are begging for workers.
There are some 50,000 open positions for truck drivers, according to the American Trucking Association. It projects the driver shortage to grow to more than 174,000 unfilled jobs by 2026.
Not every young person needs to go to college, Walden said.
“Skilled craft jobs — particularly in construction, as well as jobs in transportation — are expected to increase by 600,000 to 700,000 positions in the next decade,” Walden told the Urban News Service. “On top of that, many of the current [job] holders are older and will be retiring. Many of these jobs can pay a ‘middle class salary’ — $40,000 and over — and require two-year community college training or on-the-job training.”
The average truck driver in the U.S. earns $79,565, according to Indeed.com. Its salary estimates, the website said, “are based on 1,113,184 salaries, submitted anonymously to Indeed by truck driver employees, users, and collected from past and present job advertisements on Indeed in the past 36 months.”
By contrast, recent college graduates who major in education earn $34,981 and those who studied communications earn $47,047, according to a recent study by National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Those who studied engineering earned the most right out of college: $64,981 — still almost $15,000 less than truck drivers. Over time, college graduates eventually out earn non-graduates, studies show. Still, those studies measure gross pre-tax income and, generally, do not adjust for repayment of college and graduate-school debt.
Walden, who examined the future job market in his book, “North Carolina Beyond the Connected Age: The Tar Heel State in 2050,” pointed out that even those who start college don’t always finish.
“One-third of entering college students never graduate, some because they are not interested in college work,” he said. “The skilled craft jobs are an excellent alternative.”
And, of course, many students never finish college, but still have the debt.
The hiring projection for college grads has decreased for the first time in eight years in 2018, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And the average outstanding balance on student loans rose from $9,400 in 1993 to $28,950 in 2014, according to The Institute for College Access & Success, a national nonprofit that works to make college more affordable.
Meanwhile, as many college students worry about finding a job and stress over debt, some industries that do not require a college degree are begging for workers. The most recent report of the American Trucking Associations concludes that the trucking industry has a shortage of about 51,000 qualified drivers, “the highest level ever recorded,” the report states.
Struggling to find good drivers is a fact of life for trucking companies, said Lewis Guignard, owner of Gray Rock, the company that employs Parker.
“It’s not terrible, but it’s annoying,” he said.
Guignard doesn’t think industry is quite as desperate for drivers as the trucking organization makes it out to be, and he thinks government overregulation artificially inflates the shortage.
But Guignard, whose duties include contracting for the cargo moved by 35 drivers, including Parker, wonders why more people do not pursue careers as truck drivers rather than piling up student loan debt. All it takes to work for Gray Rock is to be 21 years old, have a commercial drivers’ license, a year’s experience as a truck driver and a clean driving record, he said.
Pay is based on number of miles driven but the average non-owner driver can expect to earn almost $1,000 per week, and pay is rising, Guignard said. He said he doesn’t know if any of his drivers have college degrees because he doesn’t ask.
“There’s a lot of blue-collar jobs that, honestly, pay a lot better than a lot of college jobs these days,” Guignard said. “If the purpose of going to college is to get a good job and support your family, you can do that with a career in trucking.”
Drivers can advance from driving for someone else to being an owner-operator to owning more than one truck, Guignard explained. Trucks take about a decade to pay off. When drivers own multiple trucks they can easily clear more than $2,000 a week, he said.
Driving a truck has its disadvantages. Parker, who has four children, acknowledged that he has missed a lot of their basketball games and other events while on the road.
But drivers can avoid even that if they play their cards right. Tyris Bailey started out as a driver at age 24, became an owner-operator at 33, and now, at 44, owns three trucks. He also works out of Gray Rock’s office as the company’s safety director.
Bailey attended community college for two years but never got a four-year degree. He seems conflicted about college.
Asked if he regrets not finishing, Bailey said, “In hindsight, I wish I did. I look at things and think I probably could have been more advanced. … But I might be alright. I have friends who have master’s degrees and they’re doing the same I’m doing — owning trucks.”