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Multiple groups work at getting more women behind the wheel

REGINA- Jordan Ewert doesn’t like to use the word truckers.

Professional drivers is the preferred way to describe the people who operate the big rigs that ship goods along our highways, says Ewert, a policy analyst for the Saskatchewan Trucking Association.

That nuance may seem like a small thing. But making changes to create a more welcoming, diverse industry is crucial in coming years, says the Regina native, whose post-secondary education included a bachelor’s degree in international development studies and a major in conflict resolution studies at Menno Simons College in Winnipeg.

Across Canada, “it wouldn’t be crazy to say that 25, 000 new drivers will be needed over the next few years,” 7,500 of those in Saskatchewan, he said.

Shelley Uvanile-Hesch has been a professional driver for over 30 years. Shelley Uvanile-Hesch has been a professional driver for over 30 years.

That reality underlines the importance of elevating the image of the transportation industry so that it is seen as a profession.

About 87 per cent of these drivers will have never previously worked in the sector, which has the highest average age of any occupation. Ewert is working to increase the number of women among those new drivers.

Retention is a large issue in the industry, in Saskatchewan partly due to a lack of rest stops in many prairie regions. Between 17 and 18 per cent of the province’s truck drivers voluntarily leave the industry every year. For Canada as a whole, that turnover rate is less than 15 per cent. In the US, voluntary turnover among all drivers is more than twice that rate.

Jordan Ewart Jordan Ewart

“For the most part, the women that are doing (professional driving) are having success. There’s just so much more to do to attract more.”

Research by Trucking HR Canada found that 97 per cent of drivers are male, and only three percent, or 11,000 of 400,000 professional drivers, are female. Most of the women who get jobs behind the wheel are indigenous or newcomers to Canada.

US studies suggest that between seven and 10 per cent of people driving 18-wheelers are women.

In Saskatchewan, employment in the transportation and warehousing industry is 87 per cent male and 13 per cent female. The sector is a primary employer in the province, directly employing about 15 per cent of the population.

Short-haul and urban routes are more appropriate for people who have responsibilities at home at the end of their shifts, so the industry is working more to tailor itself to the individuals working in it, he said. Switching out trailers and drivers to ensure that people can get home is becoming more common.

“Employers are likely going to have more success bringing in women if they can bring in that work-life balance piece.”

Recognizing the need to get more women working in the industry, Ewert and the Saskatoon YWCA have done a pilot program this winter to provide training for women who want to become transport drivers.

Women Shifting Gears, a three month program, was funded by the provincial ministry of immigration and career training.

Shelley Uvanile-Hesch started the Women Shelley Uvanile-Hesch started the Women's Trucking Federation of Canada as a networking and mentoring group for female drivers.

“I’d like to do this without a global pandemic,” Ewert said, noting that they accepted less students than originally planned. The program was designed to attract low-income, vulnerable individuals, people who have barriers to employment.

Success in the program will result in not just more women drivers but also employability skills for all of the students. “There’s kind of a human dignity side to this as well.”

Some people who aren’t well suited to driving may get a warehouse job and work their way up.

Asked about how his work is an expression of his values and faith, Ewart said he recognizes his privilege, that not everyone will have the same opportunities as Jordan Ewert, a 29-year-old white male.

“I believe in equality, but equity is just as important,” he said.

“I do believe that we can build these women up and give them the skills to succeed.”

The COVID pandemic has presented many challenges for the program, which was intended to be in-person and interactive but is now partly happening through computer screens. Ewert’s role is liaising with employers and helping students get into the job market.

Part of the pilot program puts students on driving simulators and teaches them about federal regulations. “If transportation wants to keep up with other industries that are facing (labor) shortages, we need to recognize the benefits of diversity,” he said. “We have a long way to go.”

Training on a driving simulator Training on a driving simulator

Plans are in the works to develop a similar training program specifically for indigenous people. “There’s lots of interest.”

Other organizations agree. Training programs for women and others have taken place in Alberta and British Columbia, and there are rumors of a new initiative starting in Ontario later this year.

Shelley Uvanile-Hesch is chief executive officer of the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada. Since she started the organization in 2015, it has grown from 65 to over 700 members.

The Baden, Ontario woman, who has been a professional driver for 30 years, started the WTF after realizing most trucking associations are focused on carriers. “We have a need for mentorship and networking among women in our industry,” she said.

Ellen Voie, founder and CEO of US-based Women in Trucking (WIT), agrees.

WIT, which Voie started in 2007, has 5,000 members in 10 countries. Over 90 per cent of members are in the US, with Canada making up the second largest cohort. The organization represents women and men who work in various aspects of the industry, including carriers.

When she started the non-profit, “women weren’t really being accommodated,” she said. Uniforms, trucks, and other equipment were all made for men, and there weren’t even women’s washrooms.

“The industry really wasn’t offering a level playing field for women.”

Women in the industry leave their jobs at a lower rate than men, she said.

While voluntary turnover in the industry as a whole is high, women are more likely to stay in a job if they have a friendly dispatcher to work with.

Many barriers keep women out of transportation industry

Discrimination, rates of pay, as well as training and insurance costs all limit women’s participation in the transportation industry, observers say.

Jordan Ewert of the Saskatchewan Trucking Association thinks that violence and anti- harassment legislation being mandated for all federal carriers should help turnover decrease.

The biggest barrier to more women entering the industry is image, says Ellen Voie of Women in Trucking. “Women don’t think of themselves in a truck.”

WIT has taken a number of efforts to make that connection for women, including creating a girl scouts transportation badge.

When it comes to stemming the departure of women from the industry, Voie is succinct. “I think pay needs to go up more.”

She is not surprised that one carrier who pays drivers a salary based on a 40 hour week, puts them up in hotels so they can get a decent sleep has almost no turnover. “To me, that makes so much sense.”

For many companies, paying drivers by the mile, or sometimes the load, is the norm.

Getting funding to attend truck driving school can be a major barrier, says Shelley Uvanile-Hesch of the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada. Canada does not recognize driving as a professional skilled trade.

Whereas US drivers can get their licences for a few thousand dollars, Canadian courses cost between $10,000 and $14,000.

Many training courses are less than 12 weeks in length, so people taking them do not qualify for student loans. “For people working a minimum wage job and living paycheque to paycheque, they just can’t save up the money to go. Usually, they don’t qualify for a loan at the bank to go.”

Another challenge Canadian women face after getting their licence to drive is struggling to get hired due to a lack of experience.

Insurance rates are exorbitant for Canadian drivers with less than two years experience, which makes companies reluctant to hire newcomers. “In some cases, that’s an area where the government needs to step in more,” she said.

In the US, some large carriers will pay the cost of a driver getting their commercial licence in exchange for working for the company for a set period on graduation.

Women in Trucking gives scholarships to women towards the cost of training.

Issues around health, wellbeing and work-life balance are all considerations the industry needs to address, Uvanile-Hesch said:

“We’re long past the place where people want to be on the road for three to four weeks or longer before coming home.”

Mental health is becoming a major issue. Since the fall, five drivers have committed suicide while out on the road. “We have work to do.”

Some companies offer benefits and employee assistance plans, but the workers need to be at home in order to access them. “You can’t get that behind the wheel of your truck.”

She wants to see mental health first aid training to become mandatory in all workplaces. The COVID pandemic has increase stress and loneliness for drivers “There’s no interaction other than through a phone.”

Some drivers have not been home since the beginning of the pandemic, because they have spouses or children with underlying health issues.

Lack of washroom issue is also a big problem in many areas. Drivers can be at a shipper-receiver dock for six or seven hours “and they won’t even let you go in to use the washroom.”

While some drivers have deluxe vehicles that they can shower, cook, eat and sleep in, most cannot afford these. Uvanile-Hesch’s current truck costs $180,000 and does not include those conveniences.

One of Canada’s major grocery chains recently laid off 150 drivers, people who will be replaced by lower-cost workers without decent wages or benefits, she noted.

Uvanile-Hesch and her husband drive as a team, something she says is common in the industry. But that approach can take a personal toll. “A team environment, for the spouse, can be very hard on the relationship, because one person is sleeping, and the other person is driving.”


Many barriers keep women out of transportation industry

The average age of a female driver is 50, someone who has raised their family and is now out on the road.

In 2019, women made up 10.2 per cent of US rig drivers, 24 per cent of managers at trucking companies and five percent of diesel technicians, a study of 884 carriers conducted y Freightwaves and the Women in Trucking Association.

Hewlett Packard research found that women apply for open job positions if they believe they can respond to 100 per cent of the criteria. Men respond as soon as they feel they meet 60 per cent of the requirements.

Women take fewer risks as drivers. Men are more likely to be involved in crashes that occur on curves, in the dark or while passing other vehicles, a study by the Social Issues Research Centre found.

Accidents involving women occur at lower speeds, resulting in less loss of life and less damage to equipment.

Women truck drivers are safer than male counterparts in every statistically significant safety behavior, with men 20 per cent more likely to be involved in a crash than women.

Women are often easier to train because they are more eager to learn.

Over 83 per cent of women who answered a survey about why they joined the industry said they were introduced by a family member or a friend.

Women truckers typically drive more miles per month than men and have lower voluntary turnover rates.