Outside of Wisconsin, a large slice of America may think that the spaces between Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay are populated by cows. Inside state lines, many Wisconsinites know that those same spaces are filled with another beast: semi-trailers, or “semis.” Last year, there were roughly 4.65 dairy cows to every registered semi-trailer in the state; while this is still the “Dairy State,” truck driving, or “trucking” plays a sizable role in its economy.
Mike Roth has absorbed knowledge from the trucking industry, “learning by doing,” as he says. Now director of operations at N&M Transfer in Neenah, he’s been with the trucking company for 26 years, and before that he drove a truck with the United States Army and Wisconsin Army National Guard. “Most people, if you think about it from their perspective, all you see is a truck going down the road,” he says. “You wonder what is in the truck, where it came from, where it’s going to. A lot of people don’t know how transportation works.”
Steering 80,000 pounds of truck across open road bears a lot of responsibility, but Roth feels that the general public overlooks that, for the most part. On one hand, online shopping’s newfound popularity means the average American may deal with the transportation industry much more than they realized. On the other, “freight” – the content within the trucks – can come from anywhere, globally or locally.
“Across the country, more of the transportation activities fall within the urban areas, but there are still plenty of businesses in our area that are not [right in] the Greater Fox Valley area,” says Roth. “There are some rural businesses. It could be the Amish community shipping their finished goods to their customers.”
Although the Amish are just one customer of N&M Transfer’s business, their community is a prime example of rural stops within the trucking sphere. Often, agriculture and all those cows make an appearance on both delivery and pickup routes, from cash crops to animal feed.
Serv-Ice, Oshkosh’s ice manufacturer, supplies an area ranging from rural to urban, from Minocqua’s north woods to Milwaukee’s bustle. “You’re getting a mix of both. You’ll be in downtown Appleton, or something, and then all of a sudden you’ll be right on the outskirts,” says UW-Oshkosh sophomore Colin Bores. “It’ll change right away, so you’re kind of going back and forth between both.”
Trucking routes run through Wisconsin like veins, based around manufacturing and distribution, but allowing truck drivers like Bores, who works summers for Serv-Ice, to travel the state’s varied landscapes. The job itself, however, can carry a stigma, as Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) Department Chair of Truck Driving Brian VerVoort has found.
“I think that there’s a persona out there, because we hear a lot of students come in… and say that there’s a lot more to it than they thought, or it’s more challenging than they thought,” he says. “I do think that people sometimes look at it as a fallback, like, ‘Well, if this doesn’t work out I can always go drive trucks.’”
Before FVTC, VerVoort drove in the industry for 17 years. There, he realized the patience and time management skills required of the career.
“You can’t have any of the road rage traits, or things like that, like, ‘I have to be here now; everybody else get out of my way,’” he says. “It also takes a lot of the soft skills that people don’t realize, because you’re interacting with customers all the time, whether it’s on the docks or your dispatcher.”
Drivers, VerVoort says, have more face-to-face time with clients than anyone else in the industry, from terminal managers to accountants. The position entails much more than just watching the road: Bores estimates he spends about two-thirds of his time at the wheel, one-third interacting with customers, and some moments facing unexpected obstacles.
“There’s times when I’m bringing a pallet down from the truck and it’ll get stuck or whatever, and then I’m like, ‘Oh, well what do I do?’” he says. “I’m by myself, I’ve got this one-ton pallet of ice sitting there in the hot sun. So then I’m stressing out, I’ve gotta cart it over a hundred feet.”
After days like these, Bores heads home anywhere from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. — his schedule’s in the air while he’s on the road. For him it’s a summer job, but for his state it’s a way of life: Wisconsin houses the eighth-largest trucking company in the nation.
“We may bring things in from overseas, and they may move via rail or other means of transportation within the country, but to get to the final destination, it’s gonna move on a truck,” says Roth. “That’s everything from raw materials for the manufacturing process to finished goods to final delivery for a residential delivery.”
As much a part of highway travel as corn fields and overpasses, truck drivers and their field connect the Fox Valley, Wisconsin and the Midwest. Countryside and cityscape meet in the middle when Wisconsinites keep on trucking.