Ever wonder what it would be like to drive a big truck or to sit in a Formula One racing car? I hope to do both one day but for now, I’ll live vicariously through the experiences of Shelley Uvanile-Hesch. She is the founder of the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada and an 18-year veteran driver of big rigs.
Uvanile-Hesch comes from a family of long-haul truckers. She shared what it’s like to drive a big wheeler and addressed some of the deeper, more pressing challenges that women face as drivers of change in the industry. It was more than 30 years ago that Uvanile-Hesch earned her BZ license for driving oversized vehicles. She was hired by McArthur Express in Cambridge, Ontario, and worked for J&R Hall before spending the next 16 years in her current job with Sharp Transportation Systems, Inc.
Until recently, Uvanile-Hesch had stopped driving a large rig but climbed back into the driver’s seat when the pandemic hit. She wanted to return to the front lines and to help deliver critical supplies to hospitals and organizations in need. In a way, her dedication to the trucking industry provides an interesting barometer for measuring the progress of women when it comes to achieving equality.
Uvanile-Hesch has logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of a big truck. She decided to create the Canadian Women’s Trucking Federation (CWTF) in 2016 to help further the progress of women. What she hoped was for women to share their experiences and the techniques for creating a success career in the trucking industry.
Currently, there are over 600 members in the CWTF, 25% of which are men. The number of women working under the hood (in administrative jobs) versus those behind the wheel continues to be much greater despite the untapped opportunities for women in this field. Women make up the less than 3% of the drivers who hit the road, and the larger majority of them work in administrative and industry-related jobs.
There are several reasons for this, even though support for putting women behind the wheel is growing, says Uvanile-Hesch. At present, “there are over 50 corporate members, associate members and corporate partners that make up the CWTF,” says Uvanile-Hesch. The group is diverse and includes members ranging in age from 20-70 years.
The root of Uvanile-Hesch’s work is around the greatest concerns, which are safety and work-life balance. These issues are difficult and transcend gender even though women face unique challenges. For most women, the size of most rigs like flat beds, tankers and other over-sized vehicles are intimidating for women who worry they won’t have the strength to drive them.
Thanks to the CWTF, Unvanile-Hesch says women who have overcome their fears and realized the benefits of a trucking career are sharing their stories.
“When you see someone who looks like you, doing a job that women don’t traditionally do, it’s easier to see yourself in that role.” This is something we hear across many industries when it comes to increasing diversity. “Getting into schools and letting our youth know about the wonderful opportunities available to women within the trucking industry,” can make a difference. In fact, the reality today is that shortages in the trades threaten to slow progress and hinder industry growth. Attracting more women would help to meet the “tsunami of more than 34,000 jobs needed for the Canadian trucking industry could happen by 2024,” According to a CBC article in 2019.
When asked about the attractive benefits of driving a truck, Unvanile-Hesch promotes “the beauty of an open road, the sights along the way, meeting new people and learning new things.” She knows the industry is growing and offers room for advancement, when I ask her about reduced opportunities or the growing excitement around driverless trucks and other innovations. Unvanile-Hesch says just the opposite is true.
Fully automated trucks are a long way off without the infrastructure to support them. “Many drivers and diesel technicians will tell you they still haven’t been able to make an ABS sensor that isn’t constantly malfunctioning.” General Motors, Google and Uber are testing the technology, with Tesla introducing $232,000 semi-trucks. But this technology is far from market-ready, and drivers will always be needed to woman these vehicles according to many industry experts.
The indispensable nature of the job hit home this past March, when COVID19 hit. The availability of critical commercial goods such as masks, hand sanitizers and other related hospital needs were in high demand. Thankfully, the transportation industry took center stage in meeting the critical shortage of necessary goods. Delivery became a logistical race to supply hospitals and critical care centers.
Despite hanging up her driving gloves before 2020, Unvanile-Hesch answered the call and jumped back on the road to ensure the pressing needs of Canadians were met. Featured in a special Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) interview segment celebrating the July 1st Canada Day holiday, Unvanile-Hesch spoke about the call to duty. Her heartwarming interview sent a tinge of guilt down my spine. Like so many people who probably never imagine the critical role of drivers during health crises, I saw them anew as first responders.
Unvanile-Hesch’s spoke about being “one Canadian working to meet the needs of other Canadians.” Her humility and unconditional service helped me to understand the larger role of drivers who endure hazardous and stressful conditions. Driving is a mentally and physically stressful job. “We always have to be on alert when driving, constantly anticipating what the other vehicles around us are going to do next,” says Unvanile-Hesch. Other considerations like route planning, personal safety, calculations to ensure the load delivers in a safe and efficient manner, make it difficult for drivers to eat properly and to get enough exercise.
In North America and in many areas around the world, there is an overall lack of respect, pay, benefits and concern for the fundamental well-being of drivers. Trucking is not recognized as a professional skilled trade; something that would facilitate increased wages, better benefits and a greater emphasis placed on driver health and wellness.
That’s where Unvanile-Hesch steps up to remind us about the need for change within the industry and the role of CWTF. The challenges and concerns of women are often the same for women in other trades who need the same support. This is especially true in fields that are male-dominated, where there is a greater risk of gender-based harassment and women trying to work in trades continue to do the lion’s share of domestic work.
Unlike the U.S. where other grassroots organizations exist like Women in Trucking (WIT) and Real Women in Trucking (RWIT), the WTFC is the only Canadian support network for women. In January of 2020, national entry level training came into effect in Canada. This means each province governs minimum standards needed for Class A license, which include 36.5 hours in the classroom, 17 hours in “the yard” and 50 hours behind the wheel.
These new guidelines are good news because it means a more governance rules will push the trucking industry and governments to allow more women who complete these requirement to sit in the driver’s seat. Changes in the trucking industry and other male-dominated industries will help women to see that any job is and should be open to them.
Back in 1918, Luella Bates answered the call to drive a truck in the United States. Her work helped with WWI efforts. As a test driver in New York, she earned a reputation as the first woman to drive a truck and “a girl driver” who drove through storms and flooded roads in her Model B Ford truck. Steering her way into history, she drove with what Popular Science magazine called, “feminine efficiency.”
It’s 100 years later, we’re ready for more.