Alison Cardwell is one of the 6% percent of women that are driving commercial trucks in the U.S. — a number that has risen from 4.5% in 2003. Photo by the Women in Trucking Association.
The trucking industry may have a history of being male-dominated, but recently, it’s women who have been hauling the industry onto new roads.
While there has been news recently of major trucking companies across the country filing for bankruptcy, the trucking industry has been trying to recruit more women drivers.
One of the major challenges currently facing the trucking industry, along with rising gas prices, high insurance rates and tariffs affecting certain cargo, is a shortage of truck drivers.
According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), the number of women in the US trucker population has increased over the last 15 years, going from 4.5% in 2003, to about 6% in 2018.
Ellen Voie, president and CEO of the Wisconsin-based Women in Trucking Association — a non-profit that focuses on and encourages the employment of women in the trucking industry. Voie has been involved in the trucking industry since 1979 and founded the organization in 2007.
Prior to founding the association, Voie was working for trucking company Schneider National, which asked her to figure out how to attract and retain non-traditional groups, including military veterans, senior citizens, Hispanics and women.
“The trucking industry has always had a need for good drivers,” Voie said. “I think they were looking at the fact that a majority of drivers are white males — 77% of truck drivers are white. I think they realized that we need to start looking at ways to attract a more diverse workforce.”
Voie said that women drivers are more risk averse and tend to collaborate more as a team than men do. Citing a crash and causation study from the American Transportation Research Institute, male commercial drivers are 20% more likely to be involved in a crash than a female commercial driver, influencing carriers to see female drivers as safer drivers.
Overall, Voie said that she hears from trucking companies that she works with that women are easier to train and they are better with equipment, customers and paperwork.
During the recession years of 2007-08, there were actually less women in the industry because a lot of them run in teams with their husbands or boyfriends, and when route miles go down, women usually stay home or get another job while men continue driving.
Voie said that in her experience, men in the industry are supportive of women in trucking, but she has had older male drivers — mostly baby boomers — tell her that women should not be driving.
The Women in Trucking Association hosts seminars with the Survive Institute, which provides safety advice and self defense training.
Voie said that they are also working with truck manufacturers to increase safety features, such as more complex security alarms, and had Peterbilt make alarms that automatically go off when someone tries to break in, rather than have a driver have to manually push a button to set off the alarm.
Women at workshops have told Voie that they take extra precautions such as not walking between trucks, avoiding parking in the back of a lot and avoiding sleeping at the same truck stop where they fuel or dine to avoid people noticing a lone woman driver.
Voie said that the average age of a female truck driver is 50, and that she does see interest from younger women to get into trucking, but not enough.
“I think the industry doesn’t do a good enough job promoting the technology in all these vehicles,” Voie said. “I think if we showed the outside world how much technology is in there — robotics, things for lane departures, cameras instead of mirrors — the technology is making trucks so much safer, but also so much easier to operate.”
Voie did say that there is one main attractive feature of working in the trucking industry: money.
“That’s the No. 1 reason women come in to the industry,” Voie said. “Women make the same per mile, per hour, per load that men do because the trucking company has set rates that they pay. Women actually run more miles than men, and don’t leave their carriers as often and stay with them longer, so there is less turnover.”
John Kearney, CEO of Florida-based Advanced Training Systems, runs a manufacturer of virtual simulation systems including trucking simulators.
He founded the company in 2008 and sells simulators to schools all over the U.S. and Mexico.
Kearney said that in 2008, he saw that driving simulators were going to be a huge key to proper training of drivers, and the company spent about 10 years developing various systems necessary to properly train on a simulator.
While driving simulators are a significant investment for driving schools, Kearney has noticed that more schools are investing in them as they have become more affordable. He said sales have been taking off.
Many truck drivers are hitting retirement age and while there are fewer people wanting to be truck drivers, especially millennials, Kearney did distinguish the difference between drivers today, and ones from just a few decades prior.
“The truck driver of today is a different person than the driver of the past,” Kearney said. “It’s a very sophisticated job. The equipment they use is very advanced. They have a nice vehicle to drive in with bunks, a TV and refrigeration. Trucking companies want to keep a driver for the long run, so they’re going to keep improving on the routes that you get as you gain experience.”
A big shift in the industry that spurred more women to get into trucking was the availability of more automatic transmission tractors. Kearney said that many women drivers were fearful of manually shifting gears, but automatic transmission trucks, as well as more proactive safety measures and truck stops with nicer facilities have improved recruitment of women.
“It is a male dominated industry, but that is something that has to be overcome because there are not that many differences in the ability to drive. Women in trucking don’t have as many accidents as men do. The ability to succeed in the industry is there for women, more so than men. I don’t see an issue that should prevent women from becoming a driver,” Kearney said.
With more advanced training, better vehicles, updated communication systems, Kearney said that there is a lot of factors that are making it easier both men and women to get into trucking.
For recruitment efforts, high schools are implementing programs that utilize driving simulators for students to gain proper experience and training, colleges are focusing more on the technical aspects of trucking, and trucking companies are opening their own training facilities, allowing people to learn much more before they enter the field and to be recruited into the field when they graduate.
“In the past five years there has been such an increase in the demand for truck drivers that his has been difficult for us to keep up with the number of drivers that are really being requested,” said David Castillo, director of special grants at West Hills College in Lemoore, which has a vehicle training school.
Castillo said that a truck-driving job is a type of occupation that could heavily impact the quality of life for an individual, as well as their families—with many people getting into the industry coming from field labor jobs, and gaining higher incomes in the trucking industry.
Castillo said that he has seen that more “traditional” males in the industry display some animosity towards women, seeing them as unexpected competition, but he said he is seeing a more positive shift towards acceptance of women truckers.
“Times are changing—for the positive,” Castillo said. “Even if there is a little bit of animosity upfront, I think once they [men] really get to know more women drivers, they’ll realize that they are professionals and that they’re there earning a living just like they are.”