Desiree Ann Wood has been a truck driver since 2007. She is based in South Florida and drives for an owner-operator. She hauls freight, recently carrying heavy loads like bricks, beer, and paper. In 2010, she founded Real Women in Trucking, an organization formed by seasoned female commercial motor vehicle drivers. "This grassroots, driver-led organization provides information and resources for fellow drivers, prospective CDL students, trucking executives and the non-trucking community who remain ill-informed on how truck drivers are prepared for the open highway." Prior to that, in 2008, her story A Day in the Life of Lady Trucker on the "Ask the Driver" blog became the basis for four Dan Rather investigative reports on driver training. Wood says that although the industry wants to recruit non-traditional drivers like women, it places particular impediments in their way.
"I started driving like a lot of women who get into driving - financial reasons," says Wood. "I was going through a middle-age crisis, empty nest, depression, financial issues, all at the same time. I’ve met a lot of women in my age group (Wood is now 50) who were going through the same thing. Their kids are grown and gone, and there’s no reason to keep going to the office and coming home to an empty house. These women have a lot of multitasking skills, office skills and customer-service skills, detail-oriented skills that are being wasted in an office environment because they’re not valued. Truck driving can be really empowering if you have good training and support. Unfortunately, these two things are lacking."
For Wood, being a single mother was the perfect training platform for truck driving. "I knew that as a single mother I was a problem solver. I could manage a lot of things at once. I’m also a good learner, and I like to travel and I don’t mind living out of a suitcase. Part of being a single mom with no child support or family support is making furniture out of cardboard boxes with sheets over it and using a butter knife for a screwdriver. You learn how to be MacGyver-ish, and I’ve met a lot of other women like that."
Sadly, for many women, Wood says, driver training is a horrible experience where they are sometimes exposed to sexual harassment, discrimination, false advertising and unmotivated trainers. "New drivers have many unrealistic expectations of what the trucking life is going to be, because there is very little clear information in the recruiting process. There's a lot of 'We want you, we want you,' but then there's no plan of action about how to make them successful at this job. You see incredible turnover. If you go to an orientation center at some of the mega-fleets they are bringing in lots of students every single week, fifty-two weeks of the year, but you would see that very few ever become qualified drivers."
Wood is resolute about the reasons why. "They don’t have enough good trainers for the number of students that they’re recruiting. They don’t have good trainers, because they don’t have a support system for the trainers either. The motivation seems to be that the students work cheap," she says. "They are expendable, and there’s a hundred fifty new ones next Sunday. So what’s the incentive? There’s no exit interview on these students to find out what happened in their training, what derailed their career." She claims that some companies maximize their profits by using the students as low-paid labor, a claim that training fleets have always denied. She cites one instance in which a student driver was driving at night and the trainer was asleep in the bunk, and they hit a low overhang. "This kind of accident happens often," Wood says. "The student is operating the truck at night without supervision, and the trainer is supposed to be in the jump seat, but he's not."
The trainers, Wood says, are also victims of what she considers a broken and sometimes insidious system. "They have trainers who don’t really want to be trainers, but they thought they were going to be making more money. [The training fleet] has put the screws to them, and says, 'You can make more money if you become an owner operator.' So they sell them a truck. Now the driver has to make a truck payment. Then they say, 'You could make more money if you become a trainer.' You end up with a hostile person who’s financially strapped who has a student that’s all bright-eyed and bushy tailed on their truck, and it is a recipe for disaster. It also is an environment where somebody can take advantage of a person who's completely vulnerable and dependent on them." That power can lead to sexual harassment of female student drivers, according to Wood who cites assault cases in the public record against major fleets.
Once on the road, women face problems that men don't have to endure, because the industry is male-centric. Interestingly, some of these issues are brought on by the women drivers themselves. Men drivers will stick up for each other in ways that women do not, she says, pointing to an incident at a loading dock. "One driver was late. The other guy is just pulling out of the dock. They’re all hugging and kissing. The guys has got his truck half in and half out of the dock, and I’m trying to dock by myself and they’re running in and out of the lane where I’m going, trying to back up - and I had to get out. In one way I’m like, 'Hey I’m glad you have all these friends. It looks like a party.' I don’t have that. Women drivers don’t even make eye contact with each other. There is zero support system for women and often they don’t even support one another, which I think is really sad. They don’t see that they’re sometimes their own worst enemy. That needs to change. That's one of the aims for my group."
Like many drivers, male and female, Wood is passionate about driving despite the pitfalls and problems. "I worked in a training carrier, and I saw the enormous turnover. A few months later, a year later, it's all new people. It’s the same problems over and over. Nobody changes anything. It’s really sad, because I loved driving the moment I got my hands on the wheel, and in an industry that's so desperate for drivers they keep doing all of the things that make new drivers leave the business. It’s baffling."
Even so, she feels duty bound to help women enter trucking. "You can't extinguish the passion that some women have for trucking driving," Wood adds. "I have people call me all the time who are absolutely desperate to become truck drivers. They will do anything. You could tell them every horror story in the world, but they still want to do it. They’re determined to do it. I help them because I want them to be competent drivers and safe on the road."
Wood concludes: "The driver shortage that some of the carriers are experiencing lie in the training carriers. If there are that many people entering trucking and we’re not producing a qualified driver, then there is a problem. It's time to break ranks and shine a spotlight on these problems, including the issue of sexual assault."