More women entering trucking industry, but stereotypes remain

CALGARY, Alta. – The numbers are getting better, but Trucking HR Canada CEO Angela Splinter would like to see more women choosing the trucking industry as a career.

During the inaugural Western Women With Drive event May 10 in Calgary – a collaboration between the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) and Trucking HR Canada – 115 attendees became privy to the myriad of ways trucking companies could entice more women to come on board, and how a lack of knowledge could be playing a role in why the industry remains dominated by men.

As it currently stands, 27% of those working in the industry are women – 48% of Canada’s workforce is female. Of those 27%, 18% are senior managers, 15% supervisors and only 3% are engineers or technicians.

“To me, these numbers mean more can be done,” Splinter said. “We need to make sure we are reaching out to all talent pools. It’s not about affirmative action, it’s about not overlooking 50% of our labor pool.”

Deborah Gee, an industry consultant and former driver who entered the industry though the Women Building Futures program, said during the ‘women in industry’ panel discussion that she started out driving with her brother as a team and eventually became the first solo female driver who traveled cross-country for her then employer. But it wasn’t easy.

“In any trade you’re going to take a little bit of razzing, and being a woman you might take offence to that,” Gee said, although admitted that part of her enjoyed the attention she received and encouraged women to be strong and work through the adversity. “It’s nice to see that there are some women getting into the industry and I’d like to see more.”

Gee feels the reason more women are not entering the industry is simply a lack of understanding that they are as capable as men to get the job done and get it done right.

“I think it’s got to just be a lack of communication on what the job entails,” she said. “It’s not something that just a man can do.”

Judy-Lynn Archer, past president and CEO of Women Building Futures, said women looking to get into the industry need to first educate themselves on what the expectations will be.

Archer said the trucking industry “still makes my heart race” but she doesn’t like seeing women working hard and not getting the same compensation as men.

“It just goes against the grain,” Archer said, pointing out that the average annual full-time salary for a woman in Canada is $32,000. According to Statistics Canada, the average annual income for all Canadians is just under $50,000.

Women Building Futures was launched in 1998 and helps prepare female workers starting careers in industries that have typically been dominated by men.

Archer said women who complete the program enter the workforce with high expectations and a desire to land a long-term career, two things she encourages.

“Employers are starting to see now that there’s a lot there,” Archer said of the female talent pool. “Even in this economy, we are the busiest we’ve ever been.”

Chelsea Herr, a welder with Mullen Trucking, also took part in the panel, and quickly learned from facilitator Dan Duckering to never say she is “just a welder,” or just anything, for that matter, as all aspects of the industry are vital to its success.

Herr said there is a lack of awareness for young women when it comes to finding a career in trucking, as many believe it isn’t even an option.

For Herr, much of her success stems from the support of her parents.

“Without that I wouldn’t have continued with it,” Herr said, including that fact that like Gee, it wasn’t easy at first, as she was not always told from the get-go what the demands would be.

“To some degree they were testing the waters to see if I could handle it,” she said, recommending women in any male-dominated industry to seize any and all opportunities that come their way.

During another panel discussion – ‘road to leadership’ – the importance of leadership and sponsorship was a point of emphasis, and how both are vital cogs in getting more women into the industry.

“Sponsorship is mentorship married to action,” said Linda Young, vice-president of HR and people development for Bison Transport, adding that often people need someone else to identify the qualities within them. “When I see the spark in someone, I make it a point to say ‘I see this in you.’”

Grant Mitchell, president and CEO of Westcan Bulk Transport and AMTA chairman, said despite the importance of mentors and sponsors, everyone must discover and use their own strengths.

“Everybody needs to be themselves, everyone has something different and you need to be yourself,” he said. “Find someone you can connect with and gravitate toward them. Take a risk and get outside of that comfort zone.”

Westcan has partnered with Women Building Futures and will have 12 female drivers enter the program’s new Class 1 driving session this summer.

“It didn’t take us very long at all to get involved,” said Mitchell. “What we need to promote in our industry is that it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman.”

Mitchell said stereotypical perceptions of women in the trucking are an unfortunate reality, and in order to shed those images the industry must promote female success stories so women know what’s possible and available to them. He also advised any woman who feels they are working for a company that does not appreciate them to go out and find one that does.

The Western Women With Drive event also included two keynote speeches, one from health and productivity expert Michelle Cederberg, and another by Karen Hamberg, vice-president of strategy for Westport Innovations.

Hamberg emphasized the importance of networking to get ahead.

“Your network is everything,” she stressed, saying simple tasks like taking people for coffee or lunch can make all the difference. “There’s reciprocity in all of this. The networking is so important.”

But whether you’re a woman or a man, following your passion is what really matters when it comes to choosing a career path.

“You either love it or it will slowly kill you,” said Gee of the world of trucking, who affirmed she will remain in the industry for many years to come. “Don’t apologize for wanting to do what you want to do.”