Closing The Gap

Just 6 percent of America's truck drivers are women—here's what it's like

Truck driver Lanelle Devlin

On a typical day, Lanelle Devlin wakes up around 10 or 11 a.m. and drives a Volvo D13 XE truck with a 53-foot trailer for as many as 11 hours.

A mom, wife and truck driver, Devlin is one of the women who makes up just 6.2 percent of the occupation that's not male, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The long hours discourage many women from joining the field, but Devlin says she enjoys the adventures of the road and the freedom to work independently.

"I like being on my own and making my own decisions about how I'm going to get the job done," she tells CNBC Make It.

Lanelle Devlin in front of her Volvo D13 XE truck

Trucking presents a lot of challenges to women who choose to join the occupation — data from the American Trucking Association shows that over the past 15 years, the number of women in the industry has only increased slightly, from 4.5 to roughly 6 percent.

But it can also present significant opportunities. Truck drivers earned a mean salary of $44,500 last year according to the BLS, 90 percent of truckload fleets offer their drivers paid leave and four out of five private carriers offer their drivers a 401(k) plan with an employee contribution match. Ellen Voie, founder of the non-profit organization Women in Trucking Association, says that a crucial upside of the business is that women tend to be paid fairly for their work.

"Women and men are paid the same as drivers," Voie says. "A carrier sets the pay based on mileage, hours or percentage of the load. It is not related to age, ethnicity or gender."

Getting on the road

For the past year, Devlin has driven for freight and transportation company Werner Enterprises. Her family is based in Utah, and so her truck often serves as home. She's on the road for about three weeks at a time, driving 11 hours or less each day to stay within the legal eight-day limit of 70 hours total. She then takes takes a two-to-three day break to spend time with her family.

Devlin decided to pursue truck driving later in life, but at 55 years old, she's still the average age of most of her peers in the business, according to the BLS.

Before she received her commercial driver's license (CDL) last year, Devlin held jobs as a UPS driver, waitress, receptionist and small business owner. For a while she was a stay-at-home mom. But in 2016, her son was diagnosed with Osteoblastoma, a rare bone disease, and her family needed greater financial security.

Lanelle Devlin with her son Zane and her husband.

"I mean that [diagnosis] kind of felt like somebody hit me in the face," she says. "He's 12 years old, and I had him at 43. I didn't even think I was going to be a mommy, you know. [And at the time], my husband's insurance sucked."

This time around Devlin found getting a job more challenging. She was rejected from hourly roles like gym receptionist and delivery person for a donut shop, and so she narrowed her search and started to think about how she could earn money doing something she liked to do.

"I love driving and so I started looking at all these different driving jobs, and all I saw was CDL positions," she says.

It costs an average of anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 to earn your license. Devlin says a lot of people don't know that several state unemployment offices offer grants and scholarships to cover the cost. After coming across an ad about getting your CDL license for free, Devlin called for more details and eventually enrolled in a class with the financial help of a local grant.

Gina Petelle, 60, earned her CDL license in 2003, and says she spent more than five months taking a course that included classroom and book work, as well as driving.

Devlin, who has created a YouTube channel to educate others about the industry, says that picking the wrong school can have a huge impact on your career. "Some schools are essentially flagged as 'do not hire,' because companies know they don't do a good job of training their students."

A truck driver speaks to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer soon after arriving in the U.S. from Mexico at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry cargo facility in San Diego, California.
Sam Hodgson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Challenges and opportunities

Unsurprisingly, Voie says that many female drivers are met with criticism from their male peers.

"Women in male-dominated industries need to prove themselves, and the trucking industry isn't any exception," she says. "When a female professional driver pulls into a loading dock, she's often met with skepticism from the men around her, who watch her as she backs the rig."

Petelle says that in her 15 years as a driver she's experienced plenty of derogatory remarks. "I've had men tell me, 'Why aren't you home having babies?'" she says. "And they are usually the older men who are in their 50s and 60s."

She and Devlin agree that the industry has a long way to go before it becomes more welcoming to women. Petelle, who no longer drives cross-country, says she's lucky that she's able to go home every night and sleep in her bed. But for long-distance drivers like Devlin, sleeping options are often limited to parking lots or trucking rest stops, not always the safest environments for women drivers.

"Sometimes the truck stops aren't the nicest," says Devlin. "You've got the traffic from prostitution and you've got people selling drugs. And frankly, a lot of the old time drivers, and even some of the new guys, are just a little disgusting and sometimes the truck stops smell like urine."

When a female professional driver pulls into a loading dock, she's often met with skepticism from the men around her, who watch her as she backs the rig.
Ellen Voie
founder, Women in Trucking Association

Petelle says she's had men flash their genitals at her on several occasions, and Devlin says she's seen men step out of their trucks and urinate on the concrete. "That's why most truck drivers love Walmart," says Devlin. "You've got food, you've got clothes and you've got a bathroom."

And yet, for drivers like Devlin and Petelle, the positives of driving, like pay, benefits and flexibility, outweigh the negatives. The industry is also facing a driver shortage, driving up wages and making now a prime time for women to join the field. Data from ATA indicates that the U.S. could face a shortfall of 174,000 drivers by 2026, a byproduct of an older workforce retiring.

To attract new talent, the ATA reports that many carriers are now offering competitive benefit packages and salaries that far surpass the $44,500 mean annual wage the BLS reported last year. According to the organization's most recent survey, some companies are now paying truck load drivers an average of $53,000 per year, while some private fleet drivers are seeing $86,000 salaries.

A truck drives out of the city on Interstate 55 on January 25, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

The future of trucking

There are fears that automation and the self-driving trucks being introduced by companies like Uber could put a serious dent in demand for drivers. Uber product lead Alden Woodrow tells The Atlantic that self-driving vehicles will only complement the work of human drivers, as some parts of the job can't be automated, though the true impact remains to be seen.

As the industry continues trying to attract more drivers, Voie says she is doing her part to ensure that women are aware of the opportunities driving can provide. In 2014, the Women in Trucking Association partnered with the Girl Scouts to create the Girl Scout Transportation Patch. As part of this initiative, Voie and her team travel throughout the U.S. and Canada to tell young women about the many different opportunities in trucking. Her team has also released a doll named Clare, a truck driver, to help introduce little girls to the idea of trucking.

Devlin advises anyone looking to be a truck driver to give it a try, despite the challenges they may face.

"You have to be self-motivated," she says. "For me, I'm just motivated to do the job bigger, better, faster and more efficient than anyone else."

"Women at Work" is a CNBC Make It series in which we explore the experiences of women working in majority-male occupations. Does that describe you? Contact courtney.connley@nbcuni.com to share your story.

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