By Barry Adams The Wisconsin State Journal
Ellen Voie has been in the trucking industry for more than 30 years, but she's not a driver.
Instead, she's helping female drivers, dispatchers, trucking firm owners and others grow their careers in a male-dominated industry. In 2007, Voie, (pronounced voy-yah) founded the Women in Trucking Association to "encourage the employment of women in the trucking industry, promote their accomplishments and minimize obstacles faced by women working in the trucking industry."
An estimated 180,000 to 200,000 female truck drivers are employed in the U.S., which accounts for about 5 percent of the truck-driving workforce.
Voie and her organization work with trucking companies to help them target women for jobs, guide manufacturers to design seats in trucks that are better suited for a woman and encourage truck stops to add products and services for women.
Voie learned how to read tariffs and audit freight builds in 1979 while working at a Stevens Point steel-fabricating plant.
A few years later, after she married a trucker and started a family, she and her husband had a fleet of three trucks, and she worked as a freelancer for trucking companies in central Wisconsin making sure their fleets and drivers were in compliance.
Voie created the Women in Trucking Foundation, which provides scholarships to those who want to get into the trucking industry, and in 2012 was honored at the White House as a Champion of Change, which recognizes leaders who have developed innovative transportation programs.
Did you ever have the desire to work as an over-the-road truck driver?
No, I didn't, but I did go to truck-driving school after I started Women in Trucking because I was challenged. People were like 'you need to get your CDL (commercial drivers license).'
So I passed the test (at a Cleveland, Ohio, truck driving school) and I have my commercial driver's license so I can (drive).
What was that experience like for you?
It was amazing. It was three weeks, and it was 11-hour days. There were four students and four trucks. So the first week was written stuff, the second week is all skills.
You have to learn what they call alley dock and parallel park and back in. The last week, you're focusing on driving.
I actually wrote a book about it called "Crushing Cones." We sell the book because it's about what you need to know before you go to truck-driving school.
You were in the industry for 30 years and even rode with your husband on trips. What did you learn from truck-driving school?
What I learned is that motorists are stupid. It's December of 2008 and here I am driving a tractor-trailer in Cleveland, Ohio, in the snow on a four-lane road and cars are still cutting in front of me and getting in my blind spots. Oh, and don't forget, I have this huge sign emblazoned on this tractor-trailer that says "student driver." It just amazed me that people don't have any respect for trucks.
What does that mean for a truck driver?
It means that they're always on the defensive.
What's the trucking culture like in Wisconsin?
We have a good culture here because of industries like the paper industry. The trucking industry is recovering from the recession, and it's coming back but it's still unpredictable. We're still in recovery.
You have a master's degree in communications and did your master's thesis on the complex identities of women married to professional drivers. What did you find?
When you're married to someone who is gone so much, you become very, very independent and self-sufficient, and you start taking on nontraditional roles, so when the husband comes back he's not sure where he fits in because the wife takes care of everything while he's gone.
It's very difficult. You're married for a few days and then suddenly you're single again. It's very different being married to an over-the-road truck driver.
What was the genesis of the Women in Trucking Association?
I had been recruited by Schneider National here in Green Bay, and my job at Schneider was manager of recruiting and retention programs. It was a corporate-level initiative to attract and retain nontraditional groups, and one of those groups was women.
I started to realize that the trucking industry didn't know how to attract and retain women. Everybody thought (starting Women in Trucking) was a good idea.
I didn't have anyone say, 'Don't do it.' We just grew. We had 500 members the first year. Although my advice is to not try and start a nonprofit organization in the middle of a recession.
Is there a driver shortage?
Yes. There's a severe qualified-driver shortage. Companies are looking for where they can get the next generation of drivers. The typical male driver is in his 50s. They're an aging work force and they're being eliminated because of medical issues and being disqualified because of their safety ratings.
The carriers need to start looking at their recruiting materials and think about how they're attracting women into this industry.
Why do women need a different seat design in their trucks?
Women are not just small-stature men. Women have wider hips, usually shorter legs. Manufacturers used to make trucks for guys.
There are some 98-pound women who stand 5-foot tall.
So they're looking at everything from how to make seatbelts more adjustable; the width and length of seats, so legs can go over the bottom of the seat; and where the steering wheel and dash are located. What changes are happening at truck stops?
Amenities, security and safety are among the issues. PA Petro started putting in big shower heads and hair dryers and fluffy towels. In the convenience store, if you're a truck driver and you're buying deodorant and things like that, it's all geared toward men.
Our members say they can't even find gloves that fit them, and they need to have gloves when they're fueling and for their pre-trip inspection.
What about safety issues for female drivers?
We're teaching women how to be safe while they're on the road. We tell them don't walk between the trucks, don't park in the back where its dark and try not to get out of your truck at night. And carry wasp spray because it's legal and shoots 12 feet.
One of the biggest issues we have is harassment, and it's usually from their male peers.