In it for the long haul: Getting more Ontarian women involved in trucking

Last year, only about 2.5 per cent of the province’s roughly 200,000 trucks drivers were female — here’s how the industry is working to get more women behind the wheel
By Josh Sherman - Published on Nov 05, 2019
woman standing in front of truck
Hayley Mackay has been working as a long-haul trucker since 2015. (Courtesy of the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada)

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Hayley Mackay would’ve laughed if someone had told her back in high school that she’d end up becoming a long-distance cattle hauler. “I’d be like, ‘Yeah, right, no way,’” she says. “That just hadn’t been an idea in my head.”

But, just before her 2013 graduation, she found herself doing admin work at the Perth County office of Luckhart Transport Limited, a family-run trucking outfit with a second location in Manitoba. Her co-op teacher had suggested she apply, and Mackay was hired on the spot. She set to work importing livestock trailers from Italy, and Luckhart was invited to show off the new rigs at the 2015 World Pork Expo, in Des Moines, Iowa. As project lead, Mackay wanted to attend. However, the only way she could was by getting the Class AZ licence required to operate tractor-trailers and then driving one there herself — so she did. “I had no intentions on driving for a career,” she explains.

After hitting the road, she didn’t look back. “Once I got a taste for it, it’s hard to put the ice cream down, I guess you could say,” says Mackay. After returning from the 28-day trip, she worked four more admin shifts before requesting a route and becoming one of the roughly 5,000 Ontario women who work as transport truckers.

In 2018, about 2.5 per cent of the 203,321 Class A drivers in the province were women, according to Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation. As the trucking industry contends with a labour shortage and aging workforce, efforts are being made to shed its reputation as a boy’s club — but the road to gender parity is proving bumpy.

“It’s a male-dominated industry,” says Shelley Uvanile-Hesch, a long-haul trucker who, in 2016, incorporated the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada to advocate for women in the business. “Some people are scared to get into the industry because of that fact.” Philip Fletcher, operating manager at Commercial Heavy Equipment Training, agrees. “Probably the number-one [challenge] is perception,” he says.

Financial barriers are a broader issue. Since July 2017, the Ontario government has required truck drivers to complete 103.5 hours of training at an approved institution before taking the Class A road test. The Ontario Student Assistance Program, commonly known as OSAP, doesn’t cover the mandatory training, because it doesn’t meet certain requirements, such as the minimum 12-week program length (training can be completed in under three weeks).

Autumn Phelps, who’s worked for Spring Creek Carriers, in the Niagara Region, for the past six months, says that she took out a high-interest loan to cover tuition at the Stevenson-based Zavcor Trucking Limited’s training academy in May of last year. More than half the loan balance is outstanding, but the mother of five doesn’t regret having gotten her licence. “I’m probably looking at over double what I was making in the retail section,” says Phelps, whose previous jobs include sales consultant at the Brick and housekeeper.

Transport-truck drivers earned an average of $40,846 in 2015, according to the most recently available data from Statistics Canada. However, the data aren’t specific to long-haul operators and include salaries for other drivers, including those handling dump trucks, tow trucks, and moving vans. When they’re starting out, long-haul truck drivers generally earn around $50,000, says Angela Splinter, CEO of Trucking HR Canada. With more experience, they can take home about $70,000 — some make six-figure incomes. “The salaries compare with the construction industry,” Splinter says. Her organization wants to attract millennials, and women in particular. The industry group hired the Conference Board of Canada to research demographics for its Labour Market Information Interim Report, released in September. The report states that, as of 2018, 22,000 positions had been identified as vacant, and 20,000 truckers were aged 65 and up and could retire at any time.

This year, Uvanile-Hesch launched a scholarship program through her trucking federation to assist women considering a trucking career. Crossroads Truck Training Academy, which has locations in Ottawa and Smiths Falls, came on board to provide training to the winner of an essay contest. “I thought it was a fantastic idea,” says Ken Adams, director of operations for Crossroads. Both Uvanile-Hesch and Adams note that trucking provides an opportunity for women to get well-paying jobs without years of study. “Companies are now offering benefit packages, pension plans, RRSP contribution matching, so it’s a really good career,” Adams says. The next scholarship, valued at $8,300, is set to launch November 12 with CHET, the private-career college that Fletcher oversees, as sponsor.

Mackay sees no downside to the job — not even when it comes to shovelling several thousand pounds of shavings and manure out of her trailer after a cross-border journey. “Honestly, if I didn’t have that part [of the job], I’d probably be a couple pounds heavier,” she says. “The nice part about hauling livestock is we do get the physical aspect, so we keep ourselves in pretty good shape.”

While the percentage of Ontario-issued Class A licences held by women in 2018 was unchanged from a decade prior, anecdotal evidence suggests that more women are climbing into the cabs of 18-wheelers. At Crossroads, enrolment among women is up. According to Adams, the number of female students there grew from 3 per cent in 2016 to 4 per cent in 2017 and then to 7 per cent in 2018. “And, I believe, when I put my number together for 2019, I will not be surprised if I’m around 9 to 10 per cent,” says Adams, who estimates that approximately 200 to 225 complete his school’s program annually. And, at CHET’s parent company, Musket Transport, Fletcher estimates that more than 5 per cent of its over-the-road drivers are women.

Lisa Armstrong, who’s been a long-haul trucker since 1997, has seen the industry change over the past two decades. “Nobody wanted to hire, number one, a green driver, never mind a female driver,” she says of her early years pounding the pavement. Once, she says, a man asked her if she had a husband and kids. She told him she did. “He said, ‘Go home and take care of them,” Armstrong recalls. “I probably wouldn’t have to face the same battles now as I did back then.”

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