To teach or to truck? It’s about more than just money

May 1, 2019

In 10 years, the average North Carolina teacher has the chance to affect more than 200 students – shaping their lives and impacting them in more ways than can be graded on a report card. But spending 10 years as a teacher doesn’t guarantee financial stability.

First-year teachers in North Carolina start out making $35,000 a year from the state, and throughout their careers, teachers have the potential to increase that salary by $17,000, unless they pursue higher positions within the school system. If they took out loans to pay for college, the average debt almost matches a beginning teacher’s salary, and the result is a career spent playing catch up.

But what if they skipped college and learned a trade such as trucking instead? Chris Reddick did, and he thinks things turned out pretty well.

“I went to college for a few years, messed around a little bit, got in a little trouble,” Reddick said. “I was never one for sitting still. I did about three years off and on, but it just wasn’t for me.”

Now, Reddick, 36, dispatches 18-wheelers. The salary? About $85,000 a year.

For companies such as Thomasville-based Old Dominion Freight Line, providing opportunities for employees directly out of high school is a goal. Because truck drivers in North Carolina are required to be at least 21 years old, the company created its Dock to Driver program, which allows entry-level workers to gain experience working on the shipping docks while training to become full-time drivers.

DeAnna Howell, Old Dominion’s senior manager of talent acquisition, said full-time dock workers start out making between $20 and $22 an hour. Even at the low end of Old Dominion’s pay scale, an 18-year-old worker fresh out of high school can make $38,400 in his or her first year, over $3,000 more than a first-year teacher.

“If you look at the average of someone just starting out, it’s a great place to begin,” Howell said. “These are people who can work into becoming a driver making six figures a year, and eventually work their way up to be a service center manager or something greater one day.”

Howell said that once a dock worker turns 21 and gets the green light to become a full-time driver, his or her salary can range between $60,000 and $100,000 per year, depending on the driving routes. Even if a teacher became an assistant principal, a ranking equivalent to Reddick’s central dispatcher title, he or she would make $53,550 after 10 years.

Hannah Robinson, a senior at Appalachian State University, is set to begin teaching next fall, and for her, it’s not about the money.

“The thing that makes a career in education worthwhile is the potential to mold and grow young minds,” Robinson said. “Teaching is an extremely rewarding job and being able to be the person that stands beside a student and supports them through their struggles is like nothing else.

“Teaching is not for the faint of heart and it is one of the most meaningful professions that one could pursue. I believe in education because it is the thing that allows us to grow as a people and a society. This is how we change the world and make a difference.”

But for Reddick and the truck drivers he dispatches, it’s not all about the money either. Truck driving may not seem like glamorous work, but Reddick said it comes with some unique perks.

“I had a driver who went off and drove for us for two months straight and didn’t go home, but he got to see the country,” Reddick said. “He ended up having to stop in Vegas and decided to rent a car and drive to the Grand Canyon for his day off. He never would have been able to do that otherwise without spending thousands of dollars on planes, hotels and everything else for a vacation.”

The money certainly doesn’t hurt either.

Mark Jewell is the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, and has seen the effects of low teacher compensation first hand.

When Jewell first came to North Carolina in 1997, the state was a premier destination for educators around the country, guaranteeing workable class sizes, teaching assistants and bonus pay for higher education and certifications. After spending 10 years teaching in West Virginia, Jewell knew it was time to go somewhere his hard work would be appreciated.

But after a decade and a half teaching here, things changed.

“All of the things that appealed to me and brought me to North Carolina in 1997 were wiped out in 2013 by the General Assembly,” Jewell said. As a result, North Carolina neared the bottom of the national teacher salary rankings, coming in at 47th, almost $12,000 below the national average.

“We love what we do, but we did not swear a vow of poverty,” Jewell said. “It’s very disheartening to see so many educators coming into the field, and even veteran educators, who have to work two jobs in order to make your basic needs month to month. We can’t do our best if we have to leave school at the end of the day and go wait on tables throughout the week, all on top of grading papers and lesson planning.

“It gets to a point where you have burnout. You lose a lot of high-quality educators to other professions because they just don’t feel that they can meet the needs economically.”

When enough teachers feel burned out, they’re not the only ones who pay the price. Jewell said that because teachers are switching professions, North Carolina has found itself in the midst of a teacher shortage. Jewell said that each year some 1,500 teaching vacancies remain open all school year because they can’t find educators willing to fill them. As a result, the teachers still remaining are left with larger class sizes and increased responsibilities.

The trucking industry also suffered from a shortage of drivers.

At Old Dominion, Howell said the company has placed an emphasis on investing in its employees in order to attract more drivers. Whether it’s by offering some of the industry’s most competitive salaries, providing a variety of benefits or investing in employee wellness, Howell knows the key to attracting new talent is by giving them the resources they need to succeed.

“Nothing new has happened,” Howell said. “It’s just that each generation is a bit different, and every business has to learn how to work with those people.”

But making changes to the school system isn’t as simple a change as it us within a single company. Unlike truck drivers at Old Dominion, school teachers are public employees, with salaries ultimately set by the state legislature.

When Robinson graduates from Appalachian in May and begins teaching in the fall, she knows she won’t be able to live the most glamorous lifestyle.

“I can’t say one is better than the other,” Robinson said. “I can only say that each person has their own path and should always do what will make you happy.”

Reddick agrees.

“A lot of people choose less money because it’s a job they just absolutely love and lets them never come home from work upset,” Reddick said. “If you have the opportunity to go to college and it’s not going to cost you an arm and a leg or put you in debt for 10 years, it’s worth doing. It’s just about finding what’s right for you.”

For Reddick, that means the open roads, and for Robinson, that’s in the classroom.

“Teaching is everything that makes us who we are, it is a part of our identify and it bleeds into every aspect of our lives,” Robinson said. “The one thing that teaching is not is unimportant.”

Zach Goins is a senior from Weddington, North Carolina, majoring in reporting. Over the past three years, he has worked as a senior writer for the Daily Tar Heel. Zach has also previously worked as a contributing writer at Clture.org, the co-creator/host of Inside the Film Room podcase and a social media intern at UNC-Chapel Hill Office of Undergrad Admissions. In the future, Zach hopes to enter the entertainment reporting industry.