Leah Evans had always dreamed of becoming a high school band director – until she started driving trucks.
Evans – now a driver for Saia LTL Freight in Charlotte, NC – got her CDL about 20 years ago with her now ex-husband. The two got into the industry as team drivers in 1996 for an OTR carrier. She had gone to school to study music, but ended up working as a customer service representative in air freight before she started driving.
Years later, she got a job as a temp with Clark Brothers Transfer and was hired fulltime in 2000. In 2004, Saia acquired Clark Brothers. Three years later, Evans and her ex split, and she eventually remarried in 2008. She’s been with Saia for more than 16 years, and is no longer interested in pursuing that dream of a high school band director.
“I stuck with it because I liked it; it’s what I learned how to do,” Evans said about truck driving. “I’m not willing to get out at this point. It kind of gets in your blood, the trucking industry does.”
“Being in the LTL industry, I’m home every night,” Evans added. “I’m in and out of the truck constantly, so I’m not sitting all the time. I get to meet with customers all the time – that’s the part of the job I absolutely love.”
When Evans, now in her early 40s, started out as a truck driver in 1996, she said a lot of drivers weren’t really receptive to the idea of young women entering the industry. Twenty years ago, she explained, a lot of the middle-aged male drivers were used to their wives being at home taking care of the kids. So, when Evans branched off into the industry on her own, she said it was difficult for them to accept her.
But things have changed. Now, Evans is a driver trainer with Saia, and she said it has been a great company to work for.
“They’ve had their downs, and I’ve stuck with them,” Evans told Fleet Owner. “But they’ve been on the up, and I’ve been able to do a lot more and get a lot more from Saia than I would have with Clark Brothers.”
Based on 2014 data from the U.S. Dept. of Labor, women make up 57% of the labor force. In the transportation sector, they represent a much smaller portion of the population.
Women comprise 5.8% of the 3.4 million driver/sales workers and truck drivers in the U.S. They are just 0.3% of the 323,000 bus, truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists in the workforce, and make up only 0.5% of the 211,000 heavy vehicle and mobile equipment technicians in the country.
According to Ellen Voie, president and CEO of the Women in Trucking (WIT) advocacy group, workforce diversity brings value to the bottom line.
“We’re beginning to see that in trucking; how the needs and values of women are changing things,” Voie told Fleet Owner. “Truck cabs are being designed to fit women drivers better … There’s also more focus on truck stop safety and harassment – the industry is starting to get it now. Harassment has always been an issue, but we’re working on it more. The key thing is to work on the industry’s image among the non-trucking public. We still have a long way to go with that.”
Though Evans doesn’t deal with harassment or hasn’t since she first began on her own, she and her husband, who also drives for Saia, face other challenges as working parents. But she feels the company is a good fit for them.
Evans explained that Saia is known for having some of the best health benefits and driver incentives around. When Evans trains incoming drivers, she asks what drew them to Saia, and right off the bat, trainees say “the benefits.”
Evans also said Saia holds job fairs and offers sign-on bonuses in some of its terminals. But one of the leading benefits Saia offers is after 10 years of service, employee health benefits are completely covered by the company.
“As a mother [of five] whose youngest child is six, that’s a lot of free health insurance,” Evans said, adding that her husband is a 12-year veteran with the company. “And that’s a good incentive to stay with the company.”
Challenges in the industry
Though Evans believes she’s got it pretty great, others in the industry may not be as fortunate. Evans explained that no matter which carrier drivers work for, it is always difficult to raise a family as a truck driver. And daycare and the need for extended hours is a big issue for many in the industry.
“The industry is what it is,” Evans said. “It’s long hours and there’s no set start time and stop time. I could tell you that the challenge I face and a lot of men and women face is having children and being there for your children. That’s just the nature of the beast. Thinking I can be off at 5 every day – it’s not going to happen.”
Evans and her husband have worked out a schedule to pick up their youngest child from daycare. As LTL drivers, Evans said she is fortunate that she and her husband are paid so well and that they make it home to their kids every night. But that’s not the case for a lot of OTR drivers.
According to Evans, OTR drivers don’t get paid as well, and she believes they don’t have the access that they need to gyms and healthier food options. As an OTR team driver, Evans said she was 40 lbs. heavier than she is now, mainly because her schedule consisted of eating, driving, sleeping, driving, eating – repeat.
The first summer that she started working in the LTL business, Evans said she dropped 30 lbs. in the first three months just from getting up and moving more.
“I see it all the time – OTR drivers are overweight because of the lack of moving and getting out of the driver’s seat to take a walk,” she explained.
Evans thinks the industry could set up gyms for them along their routes or near truck stops, so they’re not just walking around truck stops for exercise. She also believes the industry as a whole could attract and retain OTR drivers with better pay and benefits.
Voie told Fleet Owner that another challenge in the industry is driver safety and security both in and outside of the cab. WIT is pushing for the design of truck cab security systems that alerts a driver if someone attempts to break into the cab while the driver is sleeping, she said. “That protects both men and women,” she added.
Regardless of the challenges that she has faced, Evans loves her job and remains passionate and proud as she describes the industry as a whole. She becomes particularly energetic when she mentions her family and the Saia Sisterhood, an organized group of female drivers at the company.
And even though she never became a high school band director, Evans is still using her musical talents as the choir director at her church.