The next big thing in US trucking: Female drivers

Shortage of truck drivers
Shortage of truck drivers   

Tiffany Deering does not fit the gruff, CB radio-wielding, macho-man stereotype of a trucker.

The 28-year-old brunette from Delaware has driven a heavy-duty truck with a 53-foot trailer for just more than a year now. She travels cross-country with her husband, John, delivering freight for Werner Enterprises. The duo, both military veterans, take turns driving 12-hour shifts, enabling the truck to legally move up to 24 hours a day.

When Deering pulls into a truck stop, people typically do a double take — including other truckers. "They're like 'Oh wait, you drive too?' And they kind of step back for a second and they're like 'Oh! Really?' and I say, 'Yeah, I drive.'"

Deering is part of a cultural shift that is tearing down the connotations long associated with the trucking industry.

Confronting a severe shortage of drivers, U.S. companies have begun turning to a little-tapped labor pool: women. The U.S. trucking industry faces an immediate shortfall of 48,000 drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations, and that number is on track to quadruple by 2025, as baby boomers retire and a recovering economy boosts demand for more trucks to haul goods.

To compensate for the shortage, fleet operators have been boosting pay and dangling 401(k) and tuition reimbursement programs — but also aggressively putting programs in place that directly target the fairer sex.

Executives say a big challenge in the recruiting process is just convincing women that they're welcome. "There have been a lot of stereotypes over the years about the independent, male truck driver in a macho industry, a macho career," said Derek Leathers, president and chief operating officer of Werner. "That doesn't work in favor of attracting women to the industry. ... It's just the simple idea of us making it very, very clear that we want them."

"As a truck driver, you make the same amount of money as your male peers, because you either get paid by the mile or the load of the percentage. So gender is not an issue in pay in the truck industry for drivers." -Ellen Voie, chief executive, Women in Trucking Association

Werner, which now claims women as 9 percent of its driver pool, isn't alone. Other companies including Swift Transportation, Covenant Transportation and Schneider have also been trying to bring more women into big rigs, and the efforts are beginning to take root. Women comprise just under 6 percent of the U.S. truck driver population — still a small fraction, but up from roughly 4.5 percent five years ago.

"It's definitely a man's world still a little bit, but it is getting away from that," Deering said. "I'm amazed every time I go into a truck stop how many female drivers I'm seeing."

Sixteen percent of Covenant's drivers are women. On a recent morning, the company hired 10 new drivers — two of them female. "My most difficult thing is female trainers — finding enough of them," said Rob Hatchett, vice president of recruiting at Covenant. "Drivers come in and want to go out with female trainers."

Most of Covenant's operations involve team driving, with the fleet transporting expedited freight, especially e-commerce. More women are joining the ranks as half of husband-wife teams, empty nesters or, increasingly, millennial couples that may be looking to sock money away before they settle down and start a family.

Privately held Schneider said women comprise roughly 6.5 to 7 percent of its driver pool, with "room for more." The carrier said it tries a number of things to attract more women and more drivers in general, including a nationwide, company-owned truck stop network that gives drivers access to amenities like showers and laundry facilities.

Modified trucks have also helped. As companies upgrade their fleets, many new models tout easier-to-drive automatic transmissions and driver cabs with ergonomic changes that better accommodate body types of all sizes. Schneider's fleet, for example, will have all automatic transmissions by 2019.

Ryder System took design to another level earlier this year, when it began leasing a "female-friendly" vehicle package. The fleet management company teamed with truck manufacturers and the Women in Trucking Association to offer shipping customers 15 specifications for trucks including adjustable seat belt shoulder straps and better access to oil and fuel ports.

"Ryder is committed to identifying truck design gaps and influencing improvements in future vehicle designs that make driving a more attractive career option for women," the company said in a February release.

Accidents: 'They're not having the big ones'

Another factor that draws women to the profession: the possibility for female drivers to earn the same pay as their male counterparts.

"When you work in a male-dominated profession, you make typically more money than when you work in a female-dominated profession," said Ellen Voie, president and chief executive of the Women in Trucking Association. "So as a truck driver, you make the same amount of money as your male peers, because you either get paid by the mile or the load of the percentage. So gender is not an issue in pay in the truck industry for drivers."

At a company like Werner, a driver can make $50,000 to $60,000 in the first year. As more women get behind the wheel, the company is finding they tend to outperform male counterparts in several key, economical ways.

Here's how much truck drivers are getting paid
Here's how much truck drivers are getting paid   

"Our female drivers have about a 25 percent lower accident cost," Leathers said. "They're having smaller accidents. They're not having the big ones, if you will, where maybe the attention to detail is a little better, maybe the focus or maybe just the concern is something they bring to the party that just makes them better drivers."

Voie, who founded WIT in 2007 after several decades in the trucking industry, said that's been the feedback from other companies as well: "What carriers are telling me is that they want more female drivers for the safety issue and ... women are often better with the customers, paperwork, better with the equipment and often easier to train."

Recruiting is starting earlier, as well. WIT created a Girl Scout badge last year, initially distributed to troops in Chicago, to educate young women about potential careers in transportation.

And a career in trucking is exactly what Deering has in mind: "I think the trucking industry could use a few more women."