Trucking Firms Rethink Training to Attract More Female Truck Drivers

blue and white trucks platooning on highway

Trucking companies are making training programs more appealing to women in the hopes it will help the carriers expand their driver applicant pool and allow them to attract more female truck drivers.

It’s only taken a labor shortage, lawsuits and the rise of gender-specific driver support groups for trucking carriers to change their training programs to be more welcoming to women.

Carriers have increased assistance for female trainees by offering more practice time in truck driving simulators, creating internal support groups and adding female driver liaisons. They’ve added sexual harassment awareness and self-defense classes to training curriculums so women feel safer on training runs and can better respond in abusive situations.

To recruit more women, some carriers now let existing drivers — predominately men — train their spouses. Other companies have expanded military veteran recruiting to promote trucking jobs to women retiring from active duty. A number of carriers also fund scholarships for female high school graduates and career changers interested in transportation industry jobs.

The activities come none too soon. Trucking lines are grappling with a seemingly intractable labor shortage, with 48,000 fewer drivers than available driver jobs, according to a 2015 American Trucking Associations report.

Despite the ongoing deficit, women account for only 5.1 percent of U.S. truck drivers and 11.4 percent of all trucking transportation industry workers, according to the ATA. The numbers are getting worse, not better. From 2014 to 2015, the population of female drivers in the industry shrank by 10 percent, to 177,000, according to the trucking trade group.

Past efforts to get more women behind the wheel haven’t worked, and in some cases, were illegal. In May, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, ordered New Prime Trucking Inc. to pay $3.1 million for discriminating against women by adopting a same-sex driver training policy. In a 2011 lawsuit, the EEOC said the policy forced some women to wait up to 18 months for training, essentially denying them employment.

Training to be an Over-the-Road Truck Driver

Over-the-road driving positions are among the hardest to fill in the trucking industry. First, new drivers must pass the commercial driver’s license test. They then must spend time in the classroom and on a parking-lot training pad to become comfortable behind the wheel. Even short-haul carriers want drivers with some over-the-road experience, so regardless of where they end up, trainees may spend two to five weeks on a long-distance training run under the tutelage of a more experienced driver.

The hours are long, quarters are cramped and trainees make only a percentage of a regular driver’s per-mile wage. Some bail after a short time.

“They come into the industry saying, ‘I heard it on the radio, they’re making lady truck drivers, the industry wants more women.’ Nobody tells them you will have to work hard, and you will have to lift,” said Desiree Wood, a veteran driver and host of the Real Women in Trucking website and podcast.

For Real Women in Trucking board member Tracy Livingston, changes to traditional driver training practices are long overdue. Livingston has driven trucks for 10 years and served as an instructor for two carriers. As a trainee, Livingston said she was intimidated and sexually harassed by a male instructor on her first long-distance trip and bailed before the run was over. She reported it to the carrier, CRST International, and eventually was part of a class-action sexual harassment suit the EEOC brought against the company. It was ultimately overturned.

“The bottom line is it’s a male-dominated field, and for you to succeed you have to be twice as good as the worst man out there or you aren’t going to get anywhere,” Livingston said.

Prime dropped its same-sex trainer policy in 2013. Since then the privately held Springfield, Mo., company has retooled other aspects of training for new drivers, both women and men. Before their first long-distance trip, trainees practice on a simulator to get a feel for what it’s like to be driving an 80,000-pound big rig.

Prime, which runs more than 5,700 refrigerator, flatbed and tanker trucks, also has trainees drive on a four-hour trial run with their instructor to make sure the parties can work together before leaving on a weeks-long road trip. If it’s not a good match, the trainee can request a different instructor. Trainees can quit up to seven days into that long-distance training run and not have to repay the $4,800 that Prime provides for CDL school. The company also created a women’s driver support group and recognition program called Highway Diamonds, with an annual event that includes speakers and awards for top female drivers and instructors.

As part of its efforts, Prime hired Brooke Mosley in 2014 as a training specialist and female driver liaison.

Brooke Mosley (Photo: Prime)

Mosley works with new drivers during their classroom training and takes their calls and texts 24/7 during their initial over-the-road run.

“They can text without saying something in front of their instructor,” Mosley said. “I don’t want them to ever feel like they’re out there, 1,200 miles away from here and no one’s listening.”

For example, some trainees call to complain about truck stops that don’t have women-only restrooms.

Mosley credits the carrier’s training program for growing Prime’s female driver cohort to 766, or about 12 percent of its drivers. That’s more than twice the industry average.

Train Your Spouse

USA Truck started a Train Your Spouse program six months ago to attract more women and reduce turnover among its existing workforce of 1,850 employee and contract drivers by giving them an incentive to stay put.

“It increases their earning power, it helps get more women into the profession, and it helps with utilization of our equipment,” said Steve Brantley, director of recruiting for the Van Buren, Ark., carrier.

Several carriers are funding scholarships and recruiting military veterans as a way to find and hire more women. USA Truck teamed up with the University of Arkansas to sponsor 15 CDL school scholarships for female and male applicants through April 2017.

Earlier this year, Ryder System Inc. donated $25,000 toward a scholarship fund created by the industry group Women in Trucking to encourage female high school graduates and career changers to become drivers or study for other trucking transportation jobs. As of September, the fund had given out 16 scholarships of up to $2,000 to female students for trade school training, community college or university tuition.

Since USA Truck set out to attract more women three years ago, its female driver population has more than doubled, to somewhere between 5 percent and 7 percent.

“There aren’t very many, but it’s a start,” Brantley said.

“It’s probably a 20-year project, so we’ll continue to have to find ways to get the word out that this is a good career option for women.”

Rise of Support Groups for Female Truck Drivers

The change in training policies corresponds to the rise of industry-sponsored professional organizations such as Women in Trucking, independent groups like Real Women in Trucking, the Life as a’s Women in Trucking channel and specialty job boards such as Lady Truck All provide information and support to newcomers as well as veterans.

Whether the advances will be enough to turn the tide and recruit more female truck drivers remains to be seen. Wood believes small carriers are better suited to mentor female drivers because their size allows them to spend more time with individual trainees.

“I’d like to see more small local companies select students from the best CDL schools, cultivate them and give them the mentorship they need instead of turning and burning them,” Wood said.

Ellen Voie

Women in Trucking President and CEO Ellen Voie advocates installing cab-facing cameras inside trucks to monitor interactions between instructors and trainees to deter sexual harassment or other abusive behaviors.

Cameras also could help instructors by preventing false harassment claims or retaliation by trainees against trainers, she said.

The organization, which counts 900 drivers among its 4,000 members, published an anti-harassment employment guide some years ago to help carriers establish best practices for driver teams regardless of gender. The guide suggests drivers meet before setting foot in a cab to discuss what topics are off limits for conversation and other boundaries. It also defines harassment.

“We tell our driver members, male and female, if someone offends you with a joke or comment, you have an obligation to ask them to stop,” she said. “If it continues, something needs to be done. We can’t let ourselves be victims, we need to be more proactive.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Prime would refund $155 of Commercial Driver’s License school tuition if a trainee quits in the first seven days of their long-distance training run. The correct number is $4,800.