Written by Ellen Voie, president of the Women In Trucking Association, which has about 4,000 members. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
The trucking industry needs to get smarter if it wants to solve the chronic shortage of drivers and expand its labor base.
The American Trucking Associations estimates the industry needs an additional 48,000 drivers and projects that shortfall will grow in the coming years. This driver dearth is occurring even though there’s a huge untapped labor force the industry should be able to reach.
Women make up about 47 percent of all U.S. workers. Yet the number of women driving trucks has bounced between four percent and six percent for almost two decades.
Women can drive trucks just as well as men, and there are all sorts of insurance industry data that show that females, especially compared with young men, are generally safer drivers. At the very least, we know that accidents involving women typically occur at slower speeds, which results in less damage to the equipment and fewer fatalities.
The mission of the Women In Trucking Association is to increase the percentage of women employed in the trucking industry, an endeavor that could solve the shortage of drivers.
But as we work to get more women behind the wheel of a big rig, we find that there are all sorts of challenges that keep them off the road.
Some of these hurdles are created by the industry and others by the regulatory environment.
Truck cabs, for example, are generally built to fit the larger physical size of a man.
Their smaller and shorter stature make it harder for women to reach the controls and get the seats adjusted into a comfortable position while keeping their feet on the pedals. When you are driving days at a time —except for the rest breaks — you have to be comfortable.
There are other problems.
We heard recently from a female recruit who had signed up for training at a trucking school. The recruiter told her she would have lodging during her stay. When she arrived, she discovered that she was assigned to sleep in a bunk-house type environment with the male students. This woman was so committed to becoming a driver that she offered to book a nearby hotel room at her own expense. The school told her that was not acceptable. She left and found another training facility that didn’t expect her to sleep in a room with men.
I was so surprised by this incident that I created a poll on the Women In Trucking Facebook page and asked whether other female drivers had to share sleeping space with men during training. I asked about the facility rather than about the training in a truck.
Ten percent of the respondents said they had a shared sleeping facility with men. Some provided the name of their training school, and I was disappointed to find that there are members of the Women In Trucking Association among the group.
This is truly unacceptable. Some women won’t become professional drivers if they are concerned about their safety or their personal items in a non-private area.
Some carriers have worked to get more women into the cab only to be thwarted by government rules.
One figured it could prevent potential harassment issues by having female trainees trained by a female trainer. This policy made sense by allowing female recruits to share bunk space while out on the road with another woman, providing a sense of privacy for changing clothes and maintaining personal hygiene.
But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, objected that this resulted in a longer waiting period for female recruits because the industry doesn’t have enough women trainers. The EEOC said this longer waiting period constituted discrimination. Now, women are assigned to the next available trainer regardless of gender.
Trucking requires people to be in close quarters for long hours. Drivers generally don’t like to stop because time costs money in this business. Pairing women during training — where you are learning how to drive a tractor-trailer in heavy traffic, shift gears and back into tiny loading docks — creates a comfort level that is needed if we are going to get more women into the business.
Industry representatives maintain that they don’t care about the gender of drivers. The carriers say they hire men and women and treat them equally. But trucking can’t escape the fact that there are 20 men to every woman behind the wheel.
Instead of ignoring the fact that men and women are physically and emotionally different, let’s embrace the differences and work on making the environment better for all drivers. This means we need to look at our hiring and training practices more closely.
Editor’s note: Ellen Voie founded the Women In Trucking Association and serves as the nonprofit organization’s chief executive. Previously Voie was the Manager of Retention and Recruiting Programs at Schneider Inc.