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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.