October 2021

Feature

Women On The Road

A shortage of truck drivers has carriers tapping into a diverse talent pool.
Stephen Bennett

What’s to be done about the truck driver shortage? In a male-dominated profession, one answer may be recruiting more women. Carriers are trying to appeal to a more diverse demographic with a message about quality of work-life balance to shore up the driving ranks.

Recognizing the need for more female drivers, the bipartisan Promoting Women in Trucking Workforce Act (S. 469) seeks to create the Women of Trucking Advisory Board under the leadership of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to identify the elements that discourage women from entering the trucking industry and promote recruiting, training and mentorship programs.

“Removing the barriers that get in the way of women pursuing and retaining careers in trucking is key,” said one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

Truck driving is more approachable for women today, but there are still roadblocks for entering the profession. Ellen Voie, president of Women In Trucking Association, based in Plover, Wisconsin, discussed how she rates the industry’s recruitment of women: “The industry is doing a better job, but when I started Women In Trucking in 2007, people didn’t even track what percentage of their driving fleet was female. And the carriers would just say to me, ‘Oh, we just hire the best person.’ And my response to them was, ‘Oh really? Well, how come your uniforms are all made for men? How come the trucks are designed for men? How come you don’t even have restrooms for women in your terminals?’”

Data compiled by the American Transportation Research Institute show that women as a group excel as truck drivers, Voie said. “Women are safer drivers, women stay with their carriers longer, there’s less turnover, they’re happier with their income, and so now the industry’s like, ‘Oh wow, this is great—bring us more women!’” Voie said.

Still, she added, “It’s a double-edged sword. We want to bring more women in, but we have to make sure the industry is accommodating and values women. One of the issues that we are really focusing on now is the safety of female drivers. It’s a higher priority for women.”

Carriers can improve safety on the job through excellent equipment maintenance that reduces the chance of breakdowns. “Nobody wants to be broken down on the side of the road. And that’s [true] for women and men,” Voie said.

The overall safety culture of a company is another critical consideration. “Where are you sending your drivers?” Voie asked. “Are you sending them to a bad part of town that’s dimly lit? To a crime-ridden area?”

“If the driver says, ‘There’s a snowstorm coming, I want to pull over’—what’s the company’s reaction?” Voie asked. “If they say, ‘Absolutely. It’s up to you to make those decisions’—that’s the kind of company you want.”

Women In Trucking works with truck stop operators on safety and security, lighting and fencing—making sure that all drivers are safe, not just females, Voie said. “We also have self-defense, self-esteem experts talk at our events about how to carry yourself and improve situational awareness,” Voie said.

Sexual Harassment Awareness

The Women In Trucking Association publishes an anti-harassment employment guide, available to members upon request. It addresses everyday situations in trucking and what to do in cases of inappropriate—or worse—behavior.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is studying crimes against female and minority drivers, Voie said. “In anticipation of that study, we’re doing our own survey with members—asking female drivers where they feel least safe. Is it at a loading dock, is it at a customer’s, is it in a training situation?”

Dr. Kim Riddle, assistant professor in the School of Nursing and Allied Health at Western Kentucky University, who researches sexual harassment, said, “Women don’t want to go to work and feel like it’s a burden to be there, or that it’s a bad thing to be there.” To decrease the odds of that, Riddle suggested companies ramp up their training in sexual harassment awareness, especially during orientation. “And then once a year, companies need to reiterate that training.”

A zero-tolerance policy is “a wonderful idea,” Riddle said. “I know in the trucking industry it’s a little bit harder [to implement] because people deal with so many other people during the course of their day.” She emphasized that such a policy “really needs to be industry wide as opposed to [being established by] individual companies.”

Diversity Efforts

CarriersEdge, a company in Newmarket, Ontario, is working with Women In Trucking on a diversity inclusion index. The company operates a program called Best Fleets which includes a survey, evaluation and recognition of carriers across North America. Carriers must be nominated by one of their drivers, who complete a detailed form of more than a hundred questions.

CarriersEdge works with more than 4,000 carriers, and the Best Fleets program was launched in 2009, “so we have a lot of data and insight into what the leading companies are doing to not only get, which is secondary, but more appropriately, keep their drivers,” said Chris Henry, vice president of customer experience and recognition programs, CarriersEdge. Some carriers are working to connect with a broader range of ethnic and other communities to increase driver diversity. “In some of our carriers there’s a very high percentage of transgender individuals operating as drivers. It has definitely grown,” Henry said.

“I know that we have quite a few drivers who identify all along the LGBTQ+ spectrum who have been with us for many years, but we did not target them directly or use any unique messaging,” Vadim Komarov, director of marketing for ShipEX, said.

“We also have a lot of female drivers and drivers of all different races and religious backgrounds. Our focus is on attracting experienced, safe and reliable drivers, and creating an open and inclusive environment where everyone will feel comfortable and welcome. Unlike many other large trucking companies, we do not have a training program or help drivers get their CDL—we only hire drivers who already have a certain level of experience and a clean record. For this reason, the primary focus of our marketing efforts is reaching experienced drivers.”

Work-Life Balance

Competition for drivers is intense, and continued tightness in the driver market remains an operational challenge for many.

“Generally speaking, drivers have more opportunities than they’ve ever had,” said Jamal T. Kheiry, communications manager for Marathon Petroleum. “Our industry specifically has additional regulations,” he said, noting that drivers must have hazmat or tanker endorsements. “Given the scale of our fleet, we have had, and continue to have, a wide range of efforts underway to recruit experienced drivers,” Kheiry said. “We offer very attractive benefits and wages, an employee referral bonus, sign-on bonus and other pay incentives.”

Keeping in mind that word of mouth can be as potent a recruiting tool as any, some employers and trade associations are focusing on making drivers’ working environments, company-wide culture and work-life balance as appealing as they can.

We want to bring more women in, but we have to make sure the industry is accommodating and values women.

“Without question, our best recruiters are our drivers,” said Steve Rush, founder and CEO of Carbon Express. “They want the same thing now that they wanted in 1965 when I first began. They want to get paid. They want to be respected. And they want to go home.”

Carbon Express, which hauls motor oil among other products and is based in Wharton, New Jersey, has a dedicated run from Louisville to Kitchener, Ontario, five times weekly. One way, the trip is about 540 miles and can take close to nine hours. Rush wanted the two drivers on the run to be able to go home each night. “So instead of hiring at the ends, I hired in the middle,” he said. “One guy goes and gets it. The other guy takes it to where it’s going.”

Pilot Co.—seeking at one point to fill more than 300 positions in fuel, DEF and crude oil transport—highlighted quality of work life to potential applicants, pointing out that its drivers “are home more often and proud of the work they do.”

Jordan Spradling, vice president of transportation for Pilot, said, “We prioritize taking care of our team members with competitive pay and excellent benefits.”

Stephen Bennett

Stephen Bennett is an editor and reporter specializing in the fuel and transportation industries.