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To Reverse Driver Shortage, Trucking Industry Steers Women To Jobs

The trucking industry is short about 30,000 drivers nationwide, says the American Trucking Associations. Women are joining the ranks to help fill the void.
The trucking industry is short about 30,000 drivers nationwide, says the American Trucking Associations. Women are joining the ranks to help fill the void.

When someone says "trucker," many stereotypes often come to mind. A bearded Kris Kristofferson in the 1978 film Convoy or a hollerin' Jerry Reed from Smokey and the Bandit are just some of the mental images associated with the word.

Traditionally, trucking has been an industry dominated by men. But increasingly, that's changing.

The American Trucking Associations says the industry is short about 30,000 truckers nationwide. It expects that shortage to surge more than 200,000 truckers in the next decade.

The industry is increasingly looking at other demographics — particularly women — to close that gap.

Judy Sanchez is one of those women. She's training to become a truck driver at the Dootson School of Trucking in Arcadia, Calif.

Beginners start with a bus and move on to a truck. And Sanchez is as green as it gets. This is only the third time she's driven a stick shift.

Still, she's not lacking for confidence when it comes to parallel parking between a set of orange cones.

"Oh yeah, and I see a lot of women having a hard time and I'm like, really? Let me help you out," Sanchez says.

"Oh, we have a cocky one on us here today," her instructor jokes.

Sanchez nails it after a couple of tries.

"Why trucking?" she says. "Because I've been looking for a job where I can get good benefits, actually good pay. And why not? You know? It's fun. I like it. Women can do it too."

Erica Arvizu, an admission supervisor at Dootson's, says more and more women are getting interested in the field.

"I've been working here for 18 years," she says. "And in the last three years, there are so many more women coming and obtaining their commercial class A license."

Arvizu says most come in for the same reasons as Sanchez.

"A lot of them are single women trying to support their families, or just trying to help their partner because of the economy and everything — to survive," she says.

The median pay for a tractor-trailer driver is a little more than $38,000 a year. Long haul truckers can make a lot more. Not bad, considering you can get a license in a matter of weeks or months.

Still, the industry has struggled with filling its ranks since it shed tens of thousands of jobs during the Great Recession. Many in the industry blame government regulation. Others blame wages that haven't risen with inflation. Most point to an aging workforce and a generation of young workers who aren't exactly enticed by a career like trucking.

"And not just the trucking industry," says Ellen Voie, president of Women in Trucking, a group that tries to encourage the employment of women in the trucking industry.

"I think all trades are suffering from the same situation where everyone wants their kids to go to college and not get their hands dirty," she says.

Voie's been in trucking most of her life, and she says that the industry is far more receptive to women than it ever has been before. But it still has a long way to go in terms of attitudes and numbers. Attitudes because, Voie says, sexism and harassment are still problems.

"There's still drivers out there who think women shouldn't have a place in the trucking industry," she says. "They're few and far between, but unfortunately they're vocal."

And numbers, because the most recent labor statistics show that just over 5 percent of the trucking workforce are women. Voie thinks it's a little higher than that, but not by much. And she thinks that it's in the industry's best interests to change that.

"I would venture to say that if we could double the percentage of women working in the trucking industry, we could solve the immediate qualified driver shortage," Voie says.

And those perceptions of what a trucker should look like might change with it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.