Women are filling the need for drivers, other trucking professionals

April 1, 2009
The Trucking industry is facing a national shortage of truck drivers, especially in the long-haul segment. All indications are the shortage will continue

The Trucking industry is facing a national shortage of truck drivers, especially in the long-haul segment. All indications are the shortage will continue for some time. Meanwhile, the industry is also challenged with finding qualified drivers. Many trucking companies reject a high percentage of driver applicants because they lack qualifications. This situation has escalated in recent years as trucking has tightened security and safety measures.

Compounding matters, current demographic trends are reducing size of the pool of workers that traditionally fill truck driving jobs - men aged 35 to 54.

The American Trucking Association says the truck market is the tightest it has been in 20 years.

In an effort to recruit new people into truck driving jobs, the trucking industry has been looking to retirees, husband-wife teams, minorities, and women. Women seem to be the fastest-growing group in the field.

Estimates are that women currently represent 7% of the nation's truck drivers. It has been reported that many nationally known truck driving schools have been experiencing a large growth rate in the number of female applicants compared to men applying.

To discuss the matter of women filling the need for drivers and other trucking professionals, Refrigerated Transporter's editor-in-chief David A Kolman spoke Ellen Voie, founder, president, and CEO of Women In Trucking. Formed in March 2007, the non-profit organization was established to encourage the employment of women in the trucking industry, promote their accomplishments, and minimize obstacles faced by women in that industry.

Q: Trucking, by its nature, has always been thought of as a man's business. How and why has this been changing over time?

A: Traditionally, the trucking industry appealed to men because of the physical requirements to drive the equipment and unload the freight. This has changed, as the tractors are more ergonomically friendly for both men and women. With the introduction of power steering, power brakes, air-ride seats, automated transmissions, and technology that makes the job less demanding, driving a tractor in 2009 is not as physically demanding as it was in the past.

The work itself has changed, with more drop-and-hook deliveries and fewer hand unloads. Also, the customer is taking on the responsibility of loading and unloading the trailer due to expediency concerns and carrier demands to keep the truck moving.

Finally, the work configurations have changed over the last decade. Instead of expecting drivers to be away from home for weeks at a time, there are more regional and local options that will allow the driver to spend more time at home. And this helps reduce turnover for carriers.

All of these developments make the trucking industry more attractive to all drivers.

Q: The role of women in transportation, and the entire US labor force, changed significantly during World War II. As men left their jobs to serve their country, women replaced them. After the war, most women were laid off and told to go back to their homes. Many women remained in the workforce, but employers forced them back into lower-paying female jobs. What do you think caused women to once again look at the trucking industry for career and earning opportunities?

A: The trucking industry is one of the few that provide professional drivers with gender neutrality when it comes to wages. It doesn't matter if the driver is male or a female, they are paid according to the company's fee structure. This is truly an opportunity for women to earn the same salary as the driver in the rig next to her.

Another reason women are considering a career in trucking is that the line of gender-based occupations is blurring. Men can be nurses and work in child care. Women can be ministers, elected officials, and professional drivers.

Q: Being a woman trucker in a male-dominated industry presents a unique set of issues and circumstances. What are some of the chief challenges women face?

A: Although safety is a concern for everyone, it has a higher priority for women. Truck stop parking lots, customer loading docks, and highway rest areas are all intimidating places for a solo female to visit. This is one of the priorities for Women In Trucking to address.

We have created a devise to secure the inside of the cab to prohibit forced entry, and are working with the truck stop industry to make their facilities safer.

Although truck stops have made positive changes to accommodate women (private showers, convenience store amenities, etc.), there are many areas that still need to see improvements. It's still difficult for a woman to find smaller clothing and women's toiletries.

Many female drivers still encounter resistance at the fuel desk or when being served in the restaurant. They hear things like: “Sorry honey, we have to get the guys served so they can get back into their trucks.”

This type of attitude is still prevalent, and truck stops need to ensure that their staff treats women with the same attention as their male counterparts.

For carriers, the challenge is to offer women the option of a female trainer when requested. Instead of waiting for an extended length of time to be assigned a female, carriers offer male trainers who must be very cautious in how they interact with their students.

Misunderstandings, unintended comments, and even misdirected glances can create an uncomfortable situation for one or both drivers who are sharing a confined space for an extended period of time.

Finally, the harassment from men, both on the CB and at the truck stop, has to be curtailed. There are still men who feel that women should not be behind the wheel of a truck, and they are often vocal.

Q: How has the industry been addressing these challenges?

A: In regard to harassment, carriers are trying to make their drivers aware of these issues to minimize the occurrence. When possible, women are assigned to female trainers.

The truck stop industry truly wants to accommodate women drivers, but they need to see a return on investment, and as a minority, women do not create a large purchasing bloc to justify this change - yet. This is evolving slowly, however, as some truck stop chains are quicker to adapt to the needs of female drivers.

Q: What else should the industry be doing to be more inviting to women?

A: I believe that we should be reaching out to the non-trucking public about the opportunities that exist for women in the trucking industry - which is why Women In Trucking was created. We are doing this by highlighting the accomplishments of women who have succeeded in this male dominated environment, and by addressing the priorities - safety and security - of our members.

However, all of our efforts will make the industry more attractive to men as well.

Q: On whole, it seems that resistance to women entering the trucking industry has diminished. Why do you think this is?

A: The “old time” drivers who experienced the physically demanding challenges of the past are often the biggest critics of women entering the industry. As these folks retire, so will some of their prejudices.

Also, women today have not been told that they shouldn't find a traditional career as much as their mothers and grandmothers were instructed to do.

Q: What is driving the movement of more women going into management, safety, dispatching, and recruiting positions?

A: If you attend a trucking industry event, you will still find a predominance of men in the crowd. Women are making their presence in the middle management areas felt, but this is due to the industry's awareness that women can multitask and are often better communicators than men, so safety, dispatching, and recruiting are areas that women can use their innate abilities.

Q: Do you foresee more women entering the trucking industry?

A: Yes. There are so many opportunities for women to earn a decent wage and to challenge themselves to succeed in a traditionally male environment, and trucking offers both. The gender barriers are becoming less refined and more women will take advantage of the opportunities in transportation.

Looking to the future, I expect to see more women at the corporate level as they learn from their experiences behind the wheel, under the hood, and in the terminal.

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