How I accidentally fell in love with truck dispatching — and left it all behind

Dear MODESians,

I am on vacation. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get your weekly dose of MODES.

For this week, I’ve invited my colleague Thomas Wasson to write about … whatever he wanted. Before joining FreightWaves late last year, Wasson worked as a truck broker, fleet manager and load planner at companies like Arrive Logistics, U.S. Xpress and ai fleet. 

Our guest writer is taking us behind the scenes on a much-ignored part of the trucking industry — the part that doesn’t happen on the glorious open road, but in a cubicle. 

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My first foray into trucking came when I interviewed for a weekend dispatching position. 

I was wearing a baggy two-piece brown suit from high school that I found in my closet, and I was hoping that I sounded confident enough to be hired with my recent college degree. 

Prior to this interview, I was a security guard at a polysilicon construction site, the adult version of a science project where you combine hydrochloric acid with other chemicals. 

Dispatching seemed like a safer alternative. In truth, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

Year 1: Welcome to truck dispatching

Dispatching is one of the most important, yet thankless, jobs in trucking. Primarily, I was focused on answering phone calls from truck drivers, solving their issues and communicating with everyone involved in a freight movement — brokers, drivers, customers and more. I never really got caught up with the workload.

When you get hired at an enterprise trucking carrier, you often get a crash course in trucking. I say crash course because you spend your first few days understanding the geography and math you wish you had actually learned back in school. Calculating a location’s time zone and estimates for transit is a fundamental part of this journey. Just remember, it’s 50 mph for most places, and the West Coast is three hours behind the East Coast. That should cover enough to start. 

For those of you telling me your truck or car can go faster, try to count at 65 mph transit on your fingers and attempt to determine how many hours it’ll take from Columbus, Ohio, to Denver, which is nearly 1,300 miles and crosses two time zones. I also hope you remembered if it was daylight saving time or not. That’s why we do 50 mph of transit.

Answer: 25 hours at 50 miles per hour, but you subtract two hours from your destination due to the time zone changes. At 11 hours of drive time, it’ll take a little over two full shifts of driving if you assume your human driver drives for 11 hours a day. I found that most drivers drive seven to 10 hours per day, so let’s just say 2.5 days of drive time to be safe. 

In addition to brushing up on my math skills, I got used to taking more than 150 calls in a 12-hour shift. In all, it took me about six months to understand the trucking fundamentals. 

I was lucky that I had some patient co-workers who dutifully answered my constant questions. Here are a few other points the PowerPoint training slides didn’t cover:

  • What to do when a driver threatens to abandon his tractor-trailer on the side of the road.
  • What happens when an 18-wheeler hits a deer in Montana and the corpse hitches a ride on the grill.
  • How hurricanes demonstrate that trucks cannot float, though your driver attempted to reenact the plot of “Huckleberry Finn” with a $150,000 Class 8 tractor but no Mississippi River to float down.
  • How to deal with co-workers screaming at you for failing to reply to their email when in fact it was another dispatcher who took that call and didn’t tell you about it.

After a year, you realize that having 300 trucks on a board and taking nonstop calls is a drag; you might want to manage just 55 trucks. Luckily there is a job called a driver manager or fleet manager. 

Year 2: More responsibilities, fewer trucks

Congratulations! Now that you are a fleet manager, you have fewer trucks but more responsibilities. 

A surprising one is preventative maintenance (PM) inspections, called an APM or BPM. The “A” version is more typical, involving inspection of major truck components, while the “B” version refers to the “wet” PM, which means refilling liquids like engine oil and brake fluids. These need to be completed every 10,000 to 35,000 miles and closely monitored by the fleet manager.

You can make friends and meet executives really quickly if you neglect to have your truck routed in, and it shows up under red on the report. Not only does this possibly void the truck’s warranty, but you’ll get yelled at by a director and the driver, as both are furious at the wasted downtime and the extra maintenance required.

Another fun topic is driver pay. Now that you’re a bona fide fleet manager, you can’t tell the drivers on weekends to “talk to your fleet manager on Monday.” Now you are that fleet manager, and it’s now Monday, and now a driver is yelling at you over a pay-per-mile scale that the driver’s recruiter failed to share with you. 

Solution? Transfer the driver or email the recruiter, apologize profusely, take the next incoming phone call. Wash, rinse, repeat. Some rinse with alcohol, others nicotine, but everyone in fleet ops finds a vice. 

Year 3: Load planner

The next rung up in fleet operations is the load planner. Trucking companies normally hire experienced fleet managers to become load planners. Like a multicelled corporate organism, it was my turn to climb out of the primordial soup that was fleet management.

Startups dream of a day when they can train AI to understand the chaotic mind of a driver. Until that day, we have load planners. That chaos is woven into their very existence, and they have an uncanny ability to look at raw data and try to predict a driver’s behavior before assigning loads. You want that superpower, because most of what a load planner does is assign loads — some 100 to 150 per day.

The biggest pitfall for a load planner is matching the wrong driver with the wrong load. That often comes down to faulty data, like not knowing the driver suddenly quit or went on vacation. The driver’s equipment might have broken down. Or maybe the driver just decided after all that they didn’t want the load.

Becoming a load planner is like joining the mafia. Once you get there, it’s hard to return to other roles.

And it’s like being a bouncer outside a really cool club that none of us will ever be invited to. Both customer service reps and fleet managers attempt to plead and cajole the load planner to prioritize their own loads or trucks.

But like a Greek god, load planners can be fickle, malevolent or even vengeful creatures if you fail to offer supplication — such as help with a repower (or handing the load off to another truck like a load relay) or recovering a load that another driver messed up. 

Year 4: Freight analyst (if you are so lucky)

If you make it out of the Hobbesian state that befalls truck dispatching, fleet operations and load planning, you may finally join some of the enlightened few: freight analysts. 

In my fourth year in the trucking world, I could bid on a load and let someone else do the work of moving it across the country. Instead of dealing with individual trucks, I had the opportunity to simply quote the price of each route to a customer. 

I picked up a simple trick: Quote above the fair market rate. I would offer the customer one of the 50 trailers at my trailer pool, quote over the market price, and let them preload it to pick up a few days later. Customers love loading at their leisure a trailer that is already on-site. 

This strategy is how large carriers rule the contract world, offering millions of dollars of trailers as both storage and opportunity for more freight.

Valhalla: Designing a truckload network

We’re reaching the top of the pyramid in trucking, which is pricing and truckload network design. Like Valhalla for those load planners deemed worthy, the network designer is elevated from the daily squabbles of mere operations mortals, and becomes one with the RFP and Excel spreadsheet. 

Operating at this level is now about lanes, a semi-random collection of points and volumes. Your world is not one load a day but 7,000 loads a week. You no longer have a market but a region. Like a hydrological engineer, your job is to balance the fluid that is truckload tender volumes, taking high concentrations of trucks and pairing them with high concentrations of loads. 

The process is slow and deliberate. An outside sales rep from the trucking company reaches out about a shipper opportunity or you receive an assigned RFP and are tasked with quoting it by a set time limit. Most of your quotes are manual — unless you have software. Back in my day we didn’t and walked uphill both ways in the snow. 

It truly is an awe-inspiring moment when you can observe a truckload network via volumes and lanes. Like seeing the walls of the Matrix, the numbers and code behind trucking madness reach you with stunning clarity.

A load planner may toil in his ZIP code-defined regions for months and often not see what the adjacent region is up to. A fleet manager may focus on his 55 loads or preassignments and never see the method to the madness. And a customer service representative will take an allotment of outbound load volumes without ever questioning who is pulling the strings. 

But it is the network designer behind it all.

Designing a truckload network is like understanding what goes on behind the scenes and how customer mixes and backroom sales deals can pull the strings. If the network is balanced correctly, you’ve bought yourself just enough time before the customer cuts volume, and you start back at square one, attempting to fill the volume gap left behind. If done incorrectly, you’ll be forced to work on the spot market like a common carrier until you gain enough business to make up for the lack of volume. 

Why I left the world of truck dispatching

The best part of this journey is that at each rung of the ladder, you assume that you know everything about trucking. The cold reality is that as you move up, it becomes increasingly clear just how complex this industry is, and just how much more there is to learn. 

I ended up leaving the dispatching world behind just as Alexander the Great wept when he realized that there were no worlds left to conquer. I once joked that the half-life for a good driver manager is two years before the burnout sets in. In my case, I ended up switching jobs to become a freight broker and learn their masochist sales-orientated ways. That will be another story, as the freight broker adventure closely resembles the wild ride of dispatching, just wearing another hat.  

Do not get discouraged, for if someone like me can go from humble beginnings managing 300 trucks to writing about it for others, then there is hope for us all.

There are really only three things we can count on in trucking: death, taxes and driver service failures.

Get in touch with the author Thomas Wasson at And don’t forget to subscribe to MODES for your weekly dose of transportation insights.

Source: freightwaves - How I accidentally fell in love with truck dispatching — and left it all behind
Editor: Thomas Wasson