Owner-operators, led by independents and flatbedders, had a record year for net income, according to averages from ATBS, the nation’s largest owner-operator financial services provider. Leased operators and independents together cleared an average $56,167 during 2014. That’s 7 percent above the 2013 average, $52,406. Strong freight demand, a driver shortage and plunging diesel prices contributed to the increase.

The 2014 total “is $2,000 higher than we predicted and most of it comes from the fourth quarter fuel cost reduction,” says Todd Amen, ATBS president and CEO. “All segments had a really good year.” Net income for independents and flatbedders topped $60,000. Independents’ income showed the biggest gain over the year, 8.7 percent. Flatbed haulers, however, experienced virtually no change in income in 2014. That reflects flatbedders experiencing stronger demand and rates a few years before dry van and reefers haulers, says Gordon Klemp, head of the National Transportation Institute. NTI’s National Survey of Driver Wages tracks compensation of drivers at medium-size and large fleets. “Most of the independent contractors operating in the independent and flat markets are on percent of load type programs, so their pay adjusts quicker,” Amen says. “The independents are certainly more in the spot market as well.  So these two segments reflect a really good freight market last year. They have higher highs in good times and lower lows in bad times, more volatile than the other segments.” For 2014, net income for the groups tracked by ATBS was:

Independents: $60,157
Dry van: $54,490
Flatbed: $60,510
Reefer: $52,064

Klemp says falling fuel prices helped owner-operator earnings in two ways. One is owner-operators receiving less than a 100 percent fuel surcharge pass-through have seen their share of fuel costs dropping proportionately. The other is that because surcharges are adjusted weekly after the U.S. Department of Energy releases its average fuel prices, a surcharge will overcompensate an owner-operator as long as prices continue to fall during the week.

Sign-on bonuses have been stable in recent months, Klemp says. The mid-point is $3,000 to $6,000, with the top tier $6,500 or more. Team bonuses remain very strong, and he has seen them as high as $15,000. Many fleets use bonuses selectively by region, to meet demand, and often keep high bonuses in place only briefly.
The DOE bases its projections on what it thinks crude oil prices will do, and it expects oil to stay cheap — $58 for a barrel average in 2015.

It expects that price to climb to $78 per barrel in 2016, which would push diesel to average $3.24 next year, the DOE reports.