The billion-dollar trucking industry is changing and with it, a shift in who’s behind the wheel.
Women and members of the LGBTQ+ community might be the future of drivers as the industry works to solve a driver shortage. One place this is happening is in Bowling Green.
Idella Hansen is a long-haul trucker with over 50 years of experience. She’s worked on flatbed trucks and driven tractor-trailers with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cargo, she’s owned her own trucking business and even raised a family while pulling tractor-trailers across the country.
“I’m 73 and fast approaching 74 ,and yes sir, I’ve been doing it since I was 18 in some form or fashion,” Hansen said. “So I would say if the industry has changed I’ve seen it.”
Hansen has been behind the wheel long enough to see important changes in the people who make up the long-haul truck-driving community. She said she’s seeing more diversity when she stops during long hauls on the road.
“I am seeing it in the truck stops, day after day, after day,” Hansen said. “I’m seeing more ladies at the fuel island, I’m seeing more ladies dropping and hooking and it’s not just ladies. I’m seeing people of color, of different nationalities, a lot of transgenders.”
Trying to diversity trucking’s workforce
According to 2020 data from the American Trucking Association, Over 90 percent of truckers are men, women make up only 8% of the nation’s drivers, and minorities account for over 42% of truck drivers.
The 3.5 million drivers who make up the industry are getting older. The average trucker is 46 years old, which has some industry officials concerned about where the next wave of drivers is going to come from to fill the void left by retired drivers. The industry says it can’t find drivers to fill a growing shortage of roughly 80,000 drivers needed to keep up with growing freight demand. Experts seem to disagree on whether the issue is related to an industry-wide driver shortage, the retention of current drivers, or a combination of both, but most agree more channels need to be open to getting drivers behind the wheel.
For Hansen, it doesn’t matter what race, gender, or orientation you are as long as you can get the job done.
“So you’re seeing a lot of the gay community and rightly so, they should be out there, if they can do the job they should have the opportunity and wherewithal to do that,” Hansen said.
Bobby Coffey-Loy agrees. He’s the founder of the LGBTQ+ Truck Driver Network based in Bowling Green. His organization started as a way to represent truckers who didn’t identify as straight but also to show that there’s money to be made in trucking.
“I was trying to bridge the gap between the regular LGBTQ community and the trucking community and letting them realize there are drivers out here and that it’s a good option for a job or paying for surgeries or whatever your personal goal is,” Coffey-Loy said. “It’s a good way to make money or put money away. You don’t technically have to have an apartment, you can live in your truck and you get to see the country. You get to go everywhere and you get paid to do it.”
The nonprofit has now grown to offer mental health services for drivers, screens trucking companies to make sure they are LGBTQ+ friendly, and offers a driver memorial program for families of truckers who died while on the road. The organization checks whether companies support LGBTQ+ drivers or if their health insurance covers things like gender-affirming care.
“So for a driver, it’s a lot harder to find a company that supports trans drivers or gay drivers or has insurance that covers trans care,” Coffey-Loy said.
There are no official statistics on how many LGBTQ+ people are currently working in the trucking industry, but queer and trans drivers have always been a part of life on the road, according to Coffey-Loy.
Now, with more visibility and acceptance from trucking companies, he hopes his organization can help LGBTQ+ individuals look into a career in trucking.
“Companies is where I see the biggest progress at this point. There are so many companies that have opened up,” Coffey-Loy said.
A Vietnam War veteran and transgender trucker
For Ronihazel Sherman, trucking has been all she’d wanted to do since she was a child.
“I was always interested in driving something from (when I was) little, Sherman said. “My uncles and my father in my early life drove trucks but I got that bug from them I guess.”
She started as a long-haul driver in 1972 after serving in the Vietnam War. Sherman is a transgender driver and transitioned while she was trucking.
For her seeing women working and represented in the industry has always been inspiring.
“I was always for women,” Sherman said. “Every time I saw a woman driving a truck that just made me so proud, just so proud.”
Sherman credits her longevity in the industry in part due to working for a smaller company that offered more personal relationships with its employees.
“You’re a name and not a number,” Sherman said. “You can get somewhat personal and they know more of what you’re capable of doing than you would being lumped into the big box carriers.”
Sherman has enjoyed her career and said she rarely experienced problems with safety while out on the road or discrimination within the trucking industry.
“I’ve had a really neat career, I’ve been all 48 states, been through most of Canada. So the places I go I’m familiar with I don’t have a problem and they’re places that I’ve gone to for years.”
Sherman has said that she is seeing more young people at truck stops and pick up locations and has noticed more transgender drivers. For now, Sherman has been off the road but she hopes to get back behind the wheel soon. For her, the road is her happy place.
“If I didn’t have the situation I’m in right now I’d be on the road,” Sherman said. “I’d be on the big road, doing what I love.”
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