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VOL. 46 | NO. 13 | Friday, April 1, 2022

Equal pay draws more women to trucking careers

By Tom Wood

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The year was 1979, and Ingrid Brown was keen on the idea of becoming a truck driver during an era when there were few women in the industry – and even fewer in Mountain City, near Bristol.

Brown wasn’t the first woman behind the wheel in a commercial truck – Luella Bates is credited as being the first licensed female driver during World War I – but Brown knew that truck driving was the life for her.

“My dad and my uncle owned a large road construction company right out of Mountain City and Boone, North Carolina. I grew up wanting to run heavy equipment and drop trucks and dump trucks and all that kind of stuff and just fell in love with it with a passion,” says Brown, who owns her own truck company, Rollin’ B, LLC.

“My grandfather also drove trucks from 1938-up. He drove fuel oil trucks and things like that, and I just loved it. I’d get to go sometimes to places with him, but just meeting the people, seeing the country.

“I got my license and started in 1979. So I’m going on 43 years this year.”

Ellen Voie, president and CEO of Women In Trucking, says the number of women in the industry has increased dramatically during the last 15 years because of equality in pay.

“There’s about 3.2 million commercial drivers, and women make up about 10% of over-the-road drivers, and that’s way up in the past 15 years,” Voie says. “Most women come into the industry at the urging of a family member or friend. … Typically, that’s how they’re introduced into trucking. And then they get their commercial driver’s license and go out in the road.

“And the cool thing is women make the same amount as men because you’re paid either by the mile or the hour or the load. So there’s no pay disparity, there’s no gender disparity in pay, and the No. 1 reason women come into the industry is because of money.

“They want to earn a decent living. Starting wages are about $47,000, according to the Department of Labor.”

Donna England, president and CEO of the Tennessee Trucking Association, says those national numbers match what’s happening in the Volunteer State.

“In 2019, the Tennessee trucking industry had 202,640 careers in our industry. That equates to 1 in 13 jobs in the state of Tennessee in our industry,” England says, citing a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. “Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers held 63,790 jobs with an average salary of right at $45,000, which includes your local drivers, as well as your long-haul drivers. Your long-haul drivers will average more money than that.”

Brown says male attitudes toward women have changed over the decades, but she credits several men for watching over her and showing her the ropes. She says she feels an obligation to pay it forward and serves as an advocate for women in the profession.

“I think the biggest challenge was we felt like we didn’t fit in. We felt like that we probably wouldn’t be accepted,” Brown adds. “Of course, you had people that didn’t accept us then just like you have that today and now. That’s never changed.

“I had some amazing gentlemen that took me out of their wings, mentored me. Even though you have more women out here today to mentor to each other, I wouldn’t trade my times of learning from the gentleman that took me in and showed me the ropes and the miles.”

Brown recalls how women drivers bonded back in the day.

“There were very, very few of us. At one point, there were about six of us females that ran from the East Coast to West Coast,” she recalls. “We had no cell phones or any of that, so we would leave notes for each other at our fuel stops – because we all fueled at the same places.”

The other difficulty was hygiene.

“When I started, you didn’t get a shower without someone standing at the doors because there were no women’s showers at all the truck stops,” she says with a laugh.

Brown still thinks of trucking as “a man’s world – but I never looked at it as a gender thing. Just like my truck. My steering wheel doesn’t know the gender that holds it. And it really doesn’t care. Because it didn’t matter what color, sex, race, where you came from or anything else. The truck’s still going to operate the same way to the operator behind that.”

Oklahoma-based Kellylynn McLaughlin has been a truck driver for eight years and, like Brown, is a driver ambassador for the nonprofit Women In Trucking.

“The mission is to support and share the career opportunities that are available (for women) in this industry, not just drivers, but mechanics and associates – all of those who support the people in the industry and then to celebrate and share the stories of women who are successful in this industry,” says McLaughlin, who got her CDL at age 50.

“A lot of people don’t realize they can do it until they see somebody else doing it that looks a little bit like them.”

McLaughlin says she loves driving over what she calls “the circulatory system of our country” and is especially fond of her Tennessee travels.

“Tennessee is one of my favorite states to drive in because it’s so diverse. It’s winding and it’s hilly and it’s green and it’s country and it’s cosmopolitan. You use all of your skills when you’re driving through Tennessee. I love driving through the Cumberland Gap,” she points out.

“And I love the challenge of going down Monteagle Mountain and (seeing) the fog in the morning in the spring down in the lower valleys and then you go across the river bridge (Nickajack Lake) is just beautiful. You know, like there’s moments like that where I’m like, ‘I am so lucky being a truck driver.’

Then she pauses. But … there’s always a ‘but.’ McLaughlin says Nashville is a tough haul for truckers.

“I would love to be able to spend time and overnight in Nashville. … Its name in the trucking industry is called Crashville. Everybody hates going through Nashville. … The traffic is terrible. It’s often congested because of either a crash or construction. The drivers are rude. They speed. It’s risky driving through Nashville.”

Brown laughs when she hears this story because her view of Nashville is just the opposite.

“If somebody looked at me and said, ‘Ingrid, you can’t live in Mountain City anymore; you’ve got to pick any city in the United States,’ it would be Nashville. That has been my favorite city in this country my whole life. I don’t avoid coming through town for love nor money,” Brown says.

“So no, I don’t avoid (Nashville) whatsoever. The only time I avoided it was when they were doing that bridge construction right through town. That’s been a good five years ago. But no, I don’t dodge it whatsoever. I love coming into town.”

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