Dirty Jobs

It’s a job and somebody has to do it. Meet the guys who have stepped up to the task.

When it comes to logistics jobs, some people plan transportation strategies, organize schedules, develop and maintain IT systems, and create budgets from 9 to 5. Others move the freight, load and unload trucks, and stock warehouses—the “dirty jobs”—that make it all come together.

Here’s a look at the less- than-glamorous work that unsung logistics heroes perform every day.

Road Warrior

Nobody ever said driving a tractor-trailer was easy. John Merritts, a driver for Penske Logistics in Reading, Pa., knew that when he signed on for the job. But he can’t imagine doing anything else for a living. “The road gets into your blood,” he says.

Merritts isn’t just your average truck driver. When the Truck Renting and Leasing Association picked its “2007 Driver of the Year,” Merritts’ name was engraved on the plaque.

With more than 30 years on the road, plus one decade spent driving trucks in the U.S. Air Force, Merritts has experienced nearly every type of load and road a driver can encounter.

“In the Air Force, I delivered munitions to the officers loading the B52s,” he recalls.

Merritts began his commercial driving career in 1977, working for Leaseway Transportation. In 1995, when Penske purchased Leaseway, Merritts switched uniforms and kept on driving.

On a typical day, Merritts wakes up between 2 and 3 a.m., and is sitting in his cab one hour later. Raised on a farm, he appreciates the quiet and solitude of early morning hours.

“I’m delivering shipments in another state before most people wake up,” he says.

Merritts currently works 45 to 55 hours each week, covering approximately 350 to 500 miles per day. He mostly delivers to the states closest to his Columbus, Ohio, hub: Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and Michigan. Merritts usually drives to one or two stops every day, sometimes getting a pickup on the way back. Otherwise, it’s a straight haul back to Columbus.

“I’m lucky, I get home every night,” he says.

Besides driving his own loads, Merritts also lends his knowledge and expertise to colleagues. In 1995, Penske tapped Merritts to teach a periodic day-long defensive-driving course.

Over the years, Merritts has trained more than 1,000 drivers, although he claims he learns at least as much as he teaches. “Ten or 15 drivers might attend a class, but it feels like there’s 1,000 years of experience in the room,” he says.

The biggest changes Merritts has witnessed during his three decades on the road are increasing traffic congestion and declining condition of the nation’s roads. “Drivers have to adapt to different conditions,” he says. “Every day is a learning experience.”

Merritts attributes his successful and lengthy career to his ability to acquire and retain positive traits. “Habits are everything,” he says. “It takes 13 days to change a habit, good or bad.”

His advice to new drivers? “Absorb what you learn at driving school and make them habits” he recommends. “These habits will take care of you for years to come.”

On The Waterfront

Peter Peyton is secretary of the Marine Clerks Association, Local 63 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in San Pedro, Calif.

After toiling on the Los Angeles waterfront for more than 25 years, both as a longshoreman and as a marine clerk, Peyton knows what it means to get your hands dirty loading and unloading ships.

Waterfront workers begin their workday like few other people. “When you get to the hiring hall in the morning, you pick your job, based on the number of hours you have,” Peyton says. Under the “low man out” system, the person who has worked the fewest number of hours is entitled to pick first.

This arrangement gives waterfront workers plenty of job flexibility, and lets them choose the activities they most enjoy, Peyton says. He notes that jobs range from driving vehicles of various shapes and sizes to operating massive hammerhead cranes to working clerical jobs.

Despite the available options, most of the work is relentlessly hard and demanding. The average longshoreman works about 2,000 hours a year, Peyton says.

While many laborers gradually settle into a steady routine of working at a single task, others prefer to cross-train in various fields to develop a diverse skill set.

“You can train on different equipment as time goes on,” Peyton says, adding that training can be either formal or informal, depending on the job. “Some jobs you learn by experience; others, you need training—then you have to pass a qualification test.”

Peyton is trained and qualified in several areas, including hammerhead crane operation, forklift driving, and as a supercargo—the person in charge of loading and discharging a vessel’s cargo.

Peyton, 51, didn’t plan to become a longshoreman. He turned to the field after his first career choice didn’t unfold as he had hoped.

After graduating from UCLA, Peyton worked in the film business for several years, but eventually decided he wanted a career with more stability, a steady income, and benefits. That’s when he decided to extend his family’s tradition by becoming a fifth-generation longshoreman.

After making the career switch, Peyton never looked back. He says he likes the way longshoremen pull together to accomplish their work. “When you work together you learn to accomplish things together,” he notes.

While longshoreman are working as hard as they ever have, the marine cargo industry, particularly in Los Angeles, is facing some serious challenges, including environmental issues, congestion, and cargo growth.

“The volume of cargo we handle has grown in double-digit figures over the last 14 years,” Peyton says. “Today, the world moves through a container.”

The job’s biggest drawback, Peyton says, is its danger. The field has actually grown more perilous due to the introduction of increasingly powerful equipment.

“Years ago, workers got hurt in dock accidents,” he says. “Today, they get killed.”

Still, Peyton says he wouldn’t want a job in any other industry. “The union has negotiated great contracts and we’ve been afforded many job choices,” he says. “It is a great job.”

Final Stop

At the end of the logistics road stands Billy Spradlin, a production technician for Road Systems Inc. (RSI), Searcy, Ark. RSI specializes in refurbishing elderly trailers so they can return to the nation’s highways, rolling as steadily and safely as their youthful counterparts.

Spradlin’s job, however, has nothing to do with breathing new life into old trailers. In fact, he’s an industrial angel of death, euthanizing trailers that have reached the end of their roadworthy lives and can’t be rejuvenated.

Spradlin begins his work each day at 6 a.m., wielding a “sparker.” He uses the cutting torch to slice through a trailer’s thin aluminum shell “from top to bottom,” Spradlin says, “to make the trailer totally disappear.”

Spradlin has been on the job for two years, and feels that he is doing important work.

“Instead of the trailers sitting somewhere and rotting away, we tear them down, salvaging any materials that we can,” he says. “The best parts are cleaned up, refurbished, and recycled into rebuilt trailers.” As it turns out, Spradlin’s dirty job actually has a green lining.

Spradlin normally works a 40-hour week—four 10-hour days. Sometimes, during busy periods, he may earn up to 10 hours of overtime.

The work can be both tough and dangerous unless proper precautions are taken. “For example, when the sparker hits aluminum, it heats to 2,000 degrees instantly,” he says. “If you’re not wearing the right protection, you’ll know it.”

Upon joining RSI, Spradlin received four hours of training on step-by-step disassembly procedures and the proper use of safety equipment.

Spradlin is proud of his work and thoroughly enjoys it. “I’m a 33-year-old big boy who’s getting paid well, with good benefits, to tear up stuff,” he says. “What else could I hope for?”

On the other hand, Spradlin wishes he could eliminate some of the more noxious aspects of melting through and tearing away aluminum, insulation, wood, and other trailer materials. “It’s just plum nasty,” he says.

Spradlin notes that his occupation also creates a dirty job for his spouse: “My wife has to clean the shower daily,” he says.

Spradlin accepts the fact that getting dirty is an unavoidable part of his job.

“If you stay clean doing this, you’re doing something wrong,” he says.

Material World

Greg Erspamer is a material handler for Graybar, a Fortune 500 company located in St. Louis, Mo., that specializes in supply chain management services. Erspamer, who has worked for Graybar for 15 years, juggles a variety of tasks.

“I take care of anything having to do with handling material,” he says. “From receiving it in the warehouse to delivering it to our customers—driving a forklift or a delivery truck—I have a hand in it.”

Erspamer joined Graybar on a friend’s recommendation after realizing that his previous job, which involved constant travel, was ruining his life.

“One night, when I was traveling in Iowa, I called home and my three-year-old son asked when I was coming home for a visit,” he recalls. “I knew then that I needed to make some changes so I could be closer to my family.”

Erspamer, 49, works an average of 40 hours per week. “I have the option to work overtime, but I don’t take it as much as when I was younger,” he says.

In fact, Erspamer says he’s beginning to feel the impact of both time and age. He notes that boxes seem to weigh a lot more than they did 10 years ago.

He has also challenged himself to adapt to new technologies and work procedures.

“I’ve had to make adjustments in my work, as our daily tasks are structured around Graybar’s electronic systems,” he says. “It takes some time to get used to, but I can understand and appreciate how the technology makes the work more efficient and faster for me, and for the company as a whole.”

Erspamer never gets bored with his job. “Because of the variety, it doesn’t get old,” he says.

He didn’t feel that way at first, though. “The first year on the job, I packed boxes every day,” he recalls. “That took some getting used to because I was involved in a lot of verbal communication in my previous job. Boxes don’t have much to say.”

While Erspamer wouldn’t object if his children decided to follow in his footsteps, he doubts they will. “I don’t think they would want to because it isn’t the most glamorous job,” he says.

Still, Erspamer has no regrets. “This is a career you can stick with for years,” he says.

Leave a Reply

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