The Changing Faces of Trucking

When Aaron Gonzales started driving a truck there weren’t many over-the-road Hispanic drivers like himself. “You saw Hispanics a lot in Texas and California,” he says, “but not anywhere else.”

Now an owner-operator with three trucks, Gonzales’ expansion reflects a major trend in trucking. Hispanics, blacks, women and other minority groups are making serious inroads into the business of driving. That wasn’t true in the 1970s when more than eight out of 10 drivers were white men. Today, white men still make up 72 percent of the nation’s 3.1 million truckers according to government figures, but in 2001, 14 percent were black, 12.6 percent were Hispanic and 5.3 percent were women.

At some fleets those percentages are much higher. Mike Norder, a spokesman for Schneider National, says the percentage of women in Schneider’s fleet is significantly higher than the national average.

“As a percentage of the fleet, women drivers have increased steadily over the last five or six years,” Norder says. “We hope and expect that trend continue.”

Minorities in general are increasing in most career fields. Projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that by 2010, the number of women entering the work force will outpace men by a 5 to 3 margin. By that time, says the BLS, the Hispanic work force will grow by 36 percent; African Americans by 21 percent; and other ethnic minorities by 44 percent. The white work force will grow at only a 9-percent rate.

In trucking, several factors are fueling the increase in minorities. First, say fleet recruiters, there are fewer barriers to entering the industry than other professions. Educational requirements are minimal, and drivers can be trained quickly. Salaries also are competitive with other careers that require college and advanced degrees.

Hispanic driver German Hidrogo left a warehouse job and became a team driver to earn more money for his family. “You just have to work hard and drive,” he says. The driving job has helped him buy a house for his wife and two children.

Hidrogo drives with trucker Jesus Medina, who recruited Hidrogo into the industry. Both truckers are from El Paso, share Hispanic culture and speak Spanish on the road. But they’re both Americans and scoff at the notion that Hispanics are going to take away jobs. “It doesn’t make sense to me,” Hidrogo says. “I’m just here to work.”

“Some people out there still have that notion, including some carriers and public at large, that truckers are 55-year-old white guys with their name on their belt,” says veteran trucking industry recruiter, Kevin McKelvy. “That’s passé. It’s just not true anymore.”

Another significant factor: veteran white truckers are retiring and their children and grandchildren are entering other professions. “When you talk to veteran truck drivers, who started driving 25 years ago and are approaching retirement, you ask them if they have a son,” McKelvy says. “Does he drive trucks? ‘Oh no, he doesn’t drive. I missed anniversaries and ball games so he wouldn’t have to.'”

That attitude has created a vacuum and given opportunities to drivers like Hidrogo to make a living in trucking that they might not find in other arenas. “Tell me where a 25-year-old Hispanic with a GED is going to make $40,000 a year. Tell me where a 29-year-old female with a high school diploma is going to make $45,000 or even 50,000 a year,”he says.

As the industry faces a shortage of quality drivers, fleets say recruiting minorities has become even more important. CFI, for example, equips all its trucks with satellite radios that broadcast 100 channels, including several Hispanic music stations.

“This notion that you reach truck drivers on AM country radio has changed,” McKelvy says. “They’re interested in rock, classic rock, talk radio, gospel – every type of entertainment there is.”

Women, in particular, have benefited from technological leaps over the past 30 years. “Power steering has had a large impact,” Mike Norder says. “Before, driving a truck required the brute strength that more suited men.” Security at truckstops and terminals has also improved, giving solo female drivers more peace of mind.

McKelvy says the change shouldn’t surprise anyone. “Society has changed in the acceptance of women in non-traditional roles. Think of how many working moms there are today. It’s not just trucking it’s across the board.”

“There are people from every walk of life who can do this job, and there are those who can’t,” McKelvy says. “Unfortunately not all carriers recognize that.”

Industry relying more and more on female truckers

Driving a truck is a man’s job. Or at least that’s what statistics would lead you to believe. But don’t tell that to the more than 15,000 women who haul loads on America’s highways. And don’t tell that to the fleets that are actively recruiting more women into the business.

Although men account for 94 percent of the truckers on U.S. roads, women have been making gains, a trend expected to increase as men retire or take other jobs.

There have always been women truckers. Texas-legend Lillie McGee Drennan was one of the first. She became licensed as a trucker in 1929, owned a trucking company and drove for decades. Although Drennan inspired others to take up the road, she was an exception. Few women entered the industry for a variety of reasons:

  • barriers like motherhood that kept women out of other professions didn’t begin to dissipate until the 1980s;
  • trucking required immense strength until the development of power steering;
  • facilities at truckstops, terminals and warehouses were inadequate;
  • security wasn’t adequate;
  • and an old-boys network kept many aspiring truckers out.

Articles in the first issues of Truckers News detailed the problems. Charlotte Tracey, a petite mother of four, told the magazine that she started driving a bus and quickly switched to “the top,” driving a truck. In May 1978, the trucker said women drivers faced “resentment from a lot of men truck drivers. I don’t think I took away anything from them,” she said. “A lot of them didn’t think I would last. Some of them pulled some dirty tricks, but I stuck it out.”

Cathy Mathews says some male truckers today still feel that sting of resentment, and that female truckers like herself have to prove themselves before they’re accepted. But the eight-year trucking veteran, who drives solo, says the industry is much more accepting of women drivers than it once was.

“Now they’re even catering to women with automatics and certain other features on trucks,” she says. “They get us home on more regular basis. These carriers are trying to attract a more responsible group of drivers, and women are a huge untapped market.”

Mathews is one of a handful of female drivers at her carrier. She started hauling horses in a Ford F-350 when she was 17, and by the time she was 24, decided driving Class 8 trucks was more her style. She hauled horses for a Pennsylvania company for several years before hauling freight over-the-road. Now she drives regionally for a company close to her Bridgeton, N.J., home.

“Some of the biggest issues I’ve had to face come from that old boy network,” she says. Harassment and personal safety issues remain important. “It’s gotten better because I know what to keep my eyes open for,” she says. “But with economy down, crime has gone up. Harassment has gotten better because shippers and receivers are more used to seeing women.”

Mathews is still an exception to the exception: most women drivers come into the industry because their spouse or significant other are drivers and want to drive team.

Schneider National spokesman Mike Norder says he’s seeing more and more women solos as barriers fall down. “I think more of a focus on security and safety has helped,” he says. “At our operating centers and truck stops, women truckers feel more secure when they’re parked than what they might have seen in the past.”

Mathews saw that change when she was driving solo OTR. Mathews says one stop in Oklahoma even picks up drivers in a golf cart, which means they don’t have to walk across a poorly lit parking lot.

The industry is also easier to get into. When Truckers News was just beginning, most truckers were trained by a relative or friend or grew up around trucks. But fleets and schools have now taken over most of the training. “It’s easier to get your foot into the door, especially with a company school,” Mathews says. “That’s part of the reason why more women are making it a second career or first career.”

Problems still remain. Mathews lost her husband when she refused to stay at home and raise the kids. Other women face loneliness and safety issues. A colleague of Mathews got a job driving local because she wanted to be close to her 15-year-old daughter. She was forced to endure a 1978-model truck without air-conditioning or power steering as a result.

“When I first started at my company,” says Mathews. “there were drivers who didn’t talk to me. They wanted to see how I handled things. They wanted to make sure I was getting the job because I deserved it.”

Some women also enter the industry with the wrong expectations, Mathews says. “A lot of women get into this as a glory dream,” she says. “They don’t realize the work they have to do or the sacrifices they have to make. A lot of these women have just started marriages or families. They should either put off their driving dream, or think about getting a local drive.”

In 1978, trucker Charlotte Tracey offered Truckers News readers this insight: “Ignore people who try to hurt you because they are jealous of you. Just try hard and stay of way from those who want to make you look bad.”

Not bad advice for truckers of either gender in 2002.