NEW ORLEANS —
“It’s still a unique thing to see a woman driver in the cab of a large truck, but it’s not as unique as it used to be,” Sherri Garner Brumbaugh, president and CEO of Garner Trucking Inc. told VOA. “The number of women operators is increasing, and when I see one driving a truck, I still give them a thumbs up and a smile because they’re changing our industry.”
It’s a change experts say has been decades in the making and one accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, leading more American women to embark on a career traversing the nation’s highways driving the biggest vehicles on the road.
Trucking outfits need all the bodies they can get at a time when the number of trailers loaded with goods far exceeds the number of drivers who can get them to their destinations. Surging consumer spending has outpaced the ability of the U.S. supply chain to transport all that Americans want to buy.
For many companies, recruiting women truck drivers is helping fill the labor shortage.
“Back in the middle of the twentieth century, people saw trucking as a ‘man’s job’ because of how physically demanding it was,” said Ellen Voie, president and CEO of Women in Trucking, a nonprofit that encourages the employment of women in the field. “Technological improvements like power steering, power brakes, the way you drop your trailer and so much more make it so you don’t have to be this big, burly man to do the job anymore.
“And, in fact, women are proving they have specific talents that — in a lot of ways — make them especially suited for the job.”
Rising number of women drivers
Georgia-based driver Vanita Johnson has been on the road as a trucker for nearly a year.
“I’m 50 years old and just started this new career, but I’ve been amazed by trucks since I was a little girl,” Johnson said.
She has youthful memories of driving with her parents from their Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, home to visit family in West Virginia, Maryland, and Ohio. While on the highways, she’d see truck after truck and wonder where they were headed.
Voie says Americans have traditionally held truck drivers in high regard as part of their romanticism of the open road.
“Truck drivers used to be called the ‘Knights of the Road,’” she said. “We saw them as not only literally carrying the American economy in their trucks, but also being out there to help us regular, four-wheel drivers if something went wrong. They were American knights and it was a noble profession.”
That vision has been eroded in recent decades. Waves of experienced drivers have retired, and there’s been a lack of younger drivers entering the field to replace them. The American Trucking Association estimates the industry will need more than 1.2 million new drivers over the next decade, forcing companies to do a better job of enticing recruits.
“Those of us in charge of trucking companies are having to find ways to better meet the needs of potential drivers,” Brumbaugh explained. “That means if a driver says they need to be home on weekends, we must find a way to make that happen. But it also means attracting this untapped potential group of women drivers—particularly those who are middle aged and older—for whom being out driving on the open road could be appealing.”
The industry’s overtures appear to be working, if slowly.
While only about 3% of truck drivers were women in 2007, the year Women in Trucking was founded, a recent survey by the group found the percentage had more than tripled.
Discovering the open road
It’s the pandemic that has brought many women, Vanita Johnson included, into the trucking industry.
“I had been working in education for years, but always remembered my childhood dream of becoming a trucker,” she said. “When we were switching to virtual classrooms because of coronavirus, that wasn’t something I wanted to do. I left my job, tried to figure out what was next, and that’s when I decided to get my license.”
Johnson said she was surprised to see that six of the 10 graduates in her truck driving class were women.
“There are so many incredible women, including women much older than me, out on the road. Women of all shapes, sizes, ages, and race,” she said. “It’s a sisterhood out here.”
Voie said she’s seeing many new drivers who, like Johnson, discover a love for their new career.
“First off, it’s a job that pays well when so many other people are losing their jobs, and it’s a job that gives you independence when people are worried about COVID,” she said. “But it’s also a job that gives you the freedom to drive from coast to coast, that lets you visit family and friends along the way, and that lets you take in sunrises and sunsets most of us miss. Many of the women I speak with are rediscovering what has historically made the job so special.”
A difficult job
For all its positives, however, being a truck driver is anything but easy.
Long hours and stretches of time far from home, sleeping in your truck and navigating America’s busy interstates are just some of the challenges drivers face.
“It’s one of the most dangerous jobs there is,” said Kellylynn McLaughlin, who has been a truck driver for more than seven years and helps train new drivers. “You have to understand the equipment, and you also have to be constantly anticipating what’s happening out there while driving.”
There are also issues of harassment women must worry about in an industry where men still far outnumber women.
That harassment can encompass anything from dangerous and uncomfortable situations while training in close quarters with members of the opposite sex to enduring mocking and unwanted attention when pulling into a loading area during the day — or a truck stop at night.
“The first three months of driving, I would organize my schedule so I didn’t have to pull into truck stops after dark,” McLaughlin remembered. “I’ve got long, blonde hair and there’s no mistaking I’m a woman when I’d pull in with my truck. It felt like I was driving through a gauntlet of guys waiting to see if I’d screw up. I’d rather start super early so I didn’t have to deal with that.”
A rewarding job
But McLaughlin said, as her skills improved, so did her confidence.
“Now I feel like, ‘You know what? Let them look, because I’m damn good at this!’” she said, smiling. “I remember pulling into a loading dock and hearing someone yell up the dock that it’s a woman driver. All these guys came out on the platform to watch with their arms crossed, and I absolutely nailed it. My heart was beating out of my chest, but I was perfect and they recognized how good I was at my job.”
Voie noted that research is increasingly showing there are advantages for companies employing more women drivers.
“According to the American Transportation Research Institute, male commercial drivers are 20% more likely to be involved in a crash in every statistically significant area than their female counterparts,” Voie said. “The data shows women are safer and more risk averse, so even when they’re involved in an accident, it’s at a slower speed with less loss of life and less damage to equipment.”
Voie said she’s heard many reports in the industry that women provide better customer service and take better care of their equipment.
But Johnson said in her year on the job, though she’s dealt with difficult situations with male drivers, she doesn’t see the relationship between male and women drivers as adversarial.
“For every guy out there that’s no good, there are a dozen who are wonderful and who want us to succeed because they see us as colleagues,” she said. “My experience on the road has been wonderful. I meet incredible people, see our beautiful country, and help people get the goods they need during a challenging time for America. I couldn’t be happier with my choice to become a trucker.”