Wanted: Women Truck Drivers

Facing a steep labor shortage, trucking firms are taking a crash course in diversity recruiting. Why some sectors still have such gender gaps.

You’ve seen it before: a company has a department that is 80% or 90% male, such as service technicians or engineers or maintenance, and the C-suite accepts that “this is just the way it is.” It has always been that way. Then comes a debilitating labor shortage and a scramble to recruit women, and lo and behold, few women who are hired stay on the job.

Among the many issues arising from this pandemic, a so-called “women trucker” problem is emerging and threatening an easy-flowing economy. COVID-19 and now the delta variant of SARS‑CoV‑2 has sucked away male truckers due to illness, caretaking, and other jobs, leaving an unexpected 100,000-person labor void—just as driver demand is surging along with the economy. That has the industry scrambling to recruit women, who currently account for only 6.7% of America’s 3.5 million truckers.

Experts say the problem shouldn’t exist. Whether male or female, drivers control their own environments much of the day, and there are many semi-local jobs, such as store deliveries. But the insufficiency has occurred in part because the industries in such binds tend to ignore longer-term diversity initiatives that require redesigning jobs. “Trucking companies have no muscles to attract, hire, and retain cheap female talent,” says Dustin Ogden, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Industrial practice. “It’s foreign to them, absolutely foreign.”

Diversity initiatives typically run soup to nuts, starting with tailoring recruiting language to attract broad populations, then proceeding to reshaping jobs, company culture, and policies to meet the wide-ranging priorities and needs of a broad labor pool. Without these efforts, women (or men, in jobs like nursing and home health aides) may come on board but they won’t stay. And why would they?

In trucking, experts say, the gender disparity extends far beyond truck cabs, into fleet buildings and executive suites where industry veterans lack the skills to write ads that appeal to women, let alone entice them to stay. Only in the last few years has recruiting women risen to an industry goal, which ramped into overdrive this year out of necessity, not a yen for inclusion. “They’re literally trying to solve a capacity problem in any way that they can,” says Ogden.

To be sure, the trucking industry’s driver shortage is not new: neither gender is keen to log long weeks away from home. But the companies that make the effort to retain women often do well. One study found that male truckers crashed at four times the rate of their female counterparts, and women-owned trucking companies earn 25% more than male-owned. “Women were among my best and most reliable drivers,” says one trucking executive. “I think most fleets have this experience and are genuinely motivated to hire women.”

Getting women to stick around requires deep shifts to create inclusive environments, says Mark Royal, senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory. This begins with studying the patterns of women as they move through the organization and identifying the bottlenecks that they face, he says. At each barrier, Royal says, firms should consider both structural and behavioral practices and policies. Creative training and schedules can help too. Nearly half of truckers work more than 40 hours a week, but splitting jobs could open up options, or a rotation that shifts truckers onto less-far-flung routes when caretaking. “They need to meet women where they are,” says Ogden.

Tiffany Williams, director of diversity and inclusion in recruitment process outsourcing (RPO) at Korn Ferry, cautions that firms can inadvertently bolster the male-dominated status quo by recruiting only women who feel comfortable within it. Truckers are predominantly white (66%), much more so among the half of truckers over age 45. This can be avoided by shifting the workplace to meet not only the needs of, say, white older women, but a broad range of disability, family, religious, and veteran statuses, as well as ethnicities. Policies on healthcare, paid time off, parental leave, childcare incentives, and details like nursing rooms and safety systems need to be reconsidered to meet broad needs. Success equates with thriving. “Women need to feel that they can still wear the many hats that they wear,” says Williams. Including, of course, trucker hats.