Some people are fortunate enough to find their calling right away. Lara Gardner, VP of intermodal operations at J.B. Hunt Transport Services, is one of those lucky few.
Gardner’s career in transportation began 15 years ago at J.B. Hunt while she was a sophomore at the University of Arkansas. While in school, Gardner needed a flexible job where she could work nontraditional shifts in the evening and attend classes during the day.
After hearing about some job opportunities at Arkansas-based J.B. Hunt, she applied and landed a role with the company’s customer experience team, working the 4 p.m. to midnight shift Wednesday through Saturday.
See also: Women in Transportation 2023
“I think most people would say that wasn’t an ideal shift, especially for a 20-year-old,” Gardner quipped. “But I ended up doing better in school and learned early on how to manage my time and how to be organized.”
Gardner found that her early work at J.B. Hunt (which is No. 4 on the FleetOwner 500: Top For-Hire Fleets of 2023) was a good opportunity to learn about the foundation of the company, as well as the transportation industry.
“My career really took off once I graduated,” she said. “Even in that time in my last two years at the University of Arkansas, I really felt connected and plugged in, so I began taking even more courses related to transportation and the supply chain.”
After graduation, Gardner hit the ground running and started a manager training position in J.B. Hunt’s dedicated division in Dallas. She called that role the catalyst for her career. It was an operational role and out in the field, where Gardner worked hands-on with customers while also managing assets and drivers.
That position ended up being the perfect setup for Gardner’s current position as VP of operations within J.B. Hunt’s intermodal division. Today, Gardner oversees J.B. Hunt’s central regional operations, which are made up of a team of 125 managers, roughly 1,300 drivers, and 1,100 tractors.
Throughout her entire journey at J.B. Hunt, Gardner said she always felt there were endless opportunities for her to grow and develop as a leader. She added that J.B. Hunt has committed to creating a culture of inclusivity and established an inclusion council a few years ago.
Over the years, J.B. Hunt has also improved its safety culture, arranging for the implementation of driver hair testing in 2006, a fleetwide forward-collision mitigation warning system in 2011, and forward-facing cameras in 2016. In 2023, the company will implement inward-facing cameras across its fleets.
“The inward-facing cameras will pave the way for us helping to avoid preventable collisions resulting in damages to J.B. Hunt assets, customer cargo, employee injuries, cost, and other consequences of a collision,” Gardner explained.
“We announced we were going to move on with this very early on in February,” she added. “With any rollout or change with our technology that will affect our drivers, we are very hands-on and hold roundtables with them. We are very intentional about being in front of them, having face-to-face conversations, and answering the whys behind why we are investing in this technology. At the end of the day, it’s going to prevent collisions, prevent injuries, and prevent deaths out on the roadway.”
When it comes to attracting more women into trucking, Gardner said she believes more of a focus should be put on retaining talent by offering training and development opportunities. She also expressed the importance of mentors and those who can guide employees through that day-to-day grind.
“I always say that it does not have to be somebody who has had the exact same career path as you,” Gardner said. “It doesn’t even have to be another female, to be honest. I’ve had a lot of male mentors that I look up to day to day.”
For those interested in joining transportation’s ranks, this 15-year veteran believes the industry is an “exceptional field” for not only women but also the next generation of workers to grow.
“Working in transportation is rewarding, it’s fast-paced, and it’s exciting with lots of opportunities,” Gardner said. “Transportation employers need to make sure they are creating value with flexible hours and work requirements to accommodate family and work-life balance. We have moved toward that, and we have a lot of companies within the industry now offering competitive compensation, benefits, training, and professional development.”
“The transportation industry is full of opportunities if you’re willing to take them,” she emphasized. “Don’t be afraid to take risks within your career. Don’t shy away from applying for job opportunities. Don’t wait for perfection to take on new tasks. Don’t shy away from difficult situations or challenges. And embrace change because the industry is always going to be changing.”