More Women Becoming Truck Drivers In The US

For Carrie Walters and Linda Reynolds, becoming a truck driver was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

"Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to drive a truck," said Reynolds, 46, who has been a trucker for five years, as she and Walters, 32, show off "Betsy," the 18-wheeler they drive on long-haul routes for Con-Way Inc.

The two women spend three weeks on the road at a time in their truck, then three weeks off. Unlike single drivers, teams can drive 24/7 and earn more money. Many long haul drivers can spend months on the road at a time.

"Not many people can handle long periods on the road," said Walters, of San Antonio, Texas, a trucker for 18 months. "I can, especially as I make more money than I could back home."

American women have been driving trucks since the late 1920s. In World War 2, thousands of women took to trucking as men were called up to fight. The number of women in the industry fell sharply after those men returned from war.

But today Walters and Reynolds are part of a small but growing minority. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2006 182,000 or 5.2 per cent of the country's 3.5 million truck drivers and similar workers were women, up from 84,000 or 3.5 per cent of 2.4 million in 1983.

One reason for this is the US trucking industry is suffering from a shortage of qualified drivers from their traditional core demographic of middle-aged white men.

A 2005 American Trucking Associations (ATA) study estimated the US trucking industry is short 20,000 drivers, a deficit that could rise to 111,000 by 2014.

Faced with a looming crisis, truck companies want to hire more women to plug the gaps in this male-dominated industry.

"Many truck companies are champing at the bit to hire women," said Marge Bailey, who runs 31 truck job referral web sites, including LadyTruckDrivers.com.

Steve Russell, chief executive of Indianapolis-based Celadon Group Inc, said 13 per cent of his company's 4000 drivers are women and he is keen to hire more.

"Anecdotal evidence indicates women are more careful and take better care of their equipment, which is good for us," Russell said.

Women truckers say they occasionally get complaints from older male truckers that they are taking men's jobs, "though only ever over the CB (radio) on the road, never in person," said Brigid Siebarth, 49, who drives for Con-way.

"I think some of them are intimidated by us," she added.

TRUCKING MADE EASIER

Truck company officials tout advances in technology such as power steering that mean driving a truck now requires less brute strength. They also stress that all drivers are paid by the mile, regardless of gender.

"I like the fact that I make the same as a man on the road," said Charlotte Mettlen, 40, who drives for Celadon. "And I make more than I would if I were working in retail."

According to 2006 Bureau of Labor Statistics, truckers earn $36,000 a year on average. But experienced truckers or team drivers like Walters and Reynolds can make up to $60,000 each.

Ellen Voie, recruiting and retention program manager at Green Bay, Wisconsin-based Schneider National Inc, said the trucking sector has become "far more female friendly in recent years" but often doesn't provide basic facilities such as toilets and showers for women, or a secure place to sleep.

"Security is a major concern for women," Voie said.

Chairman Ray Kuntz of ATA, the largest US trucking lobbying group, agreed more could be done for female truckers.

"A lot of our leadership realises there should be a much larger role for women in the industry," he said. "But a lot of our facilities have not yet been brought up to speed."

"We aim to change that to include more women," he said. "If we don't reach a broader audience, the lack of drivers will bring the US economy to its knees."

In Aurora, another Chicago suburb, Rosa Reynosa works for Con-way in its less-than-truckload business. LTL operators consolidate small loads into a single truck.

For Reynosa, who is 30, that means taking loads from incoming trucks and moving them using a forklift, or picking up and dropping off loads by truck in the Chicago area.

Tom Drynan, an imposing former US Marine who runs this facility, described Reynosa – the only woman here among 80 or so men – as one of his best workers.

"If I had 30 more Rosas, I'd be a happy man," he said.

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