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When you're driving on the freeway, it may not feel like it but there is a shortage of truckers. The American Trucking Association says they're short about 30,000 truckers nationwide, and the shortage is expected to grow to more than 200,000 in the next decade. NPR's Nathan Rott reports that the industry is increasingly looking to women to close that gap.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: OK, I say trucker, you think - what? - a bearded Kris Kristofferson in "Convoy."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CONVOY")
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: (As Martin Penwald) Hey, love machine. You ain't hauling go-go girls, are you?
ROTT: Or maybe a hollering Jerry Reed from "Smokey And The Bandit."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT")
JERRY REED: (As Cledus) I'm the brother of a truck driving mother - boogie, boogie, boogie.
ROTT: There's long been a stereotype of truckers, and maybe deservedly. Traditionally, trucking has been an industry dominated by men. But increasingly, that's changing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JUDY SANCHEZ: So let me start with the seatbelt first.
UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: Seatbelt first - safety always.
ROTT: Judy Sanchez gets pointers from her instructor as she takes her position behind the wheel of a big, yellow bus at the Dootson School of Trucking in Arcadia, California.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUS STARTING)
ROTT: Beginners start with a bus and move on to a truck, and Sanchez is about as green as it gets. This is only the third time she's driven a stick shift. Still, she's not lacking for confidence when it comes to parallel parking between a set of bright orange cones.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SANCHEZ: Oh, yeah, and I see a lot of women having a hard time. And I'm just like, really? Let me go help you out. (Laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: Oh, we've got a cocky one on us here today.
ROTT: Sanchez nails it - after a couple of tries. And inside, after the lesson, she explains why she's here.
SANCHEZ: Why trucking? - because you know what, I've been looking for a job where I can get, you know, good benefits, actually good pay. And why not? You know, it's fun. I like it. (Laughter). Yeah, you know, women can do it too.
ROTT: Erica Arvizu is the admission supervisor at Dootson.
ERICA ARVIZU: I have been working here for 18 years. And then, the last three years, there are so many more women coming and obtaining their commercial class A license.
ROTT: Arvizu says most come in for the same reasons as Sanchez.
ARVIZU: A lot of them are single women trying to support their families or just trying to help their partner - because of the economy and everything - to survive.
ROTT: The median pay for a tractor-trailer trucker is a little over $38,000 a year. Long-haul truckers can make a lot more - not bad considering you can get a license in just a matter of weeks or months. Still, the industry has struggled with filling its ranks since it shed tens of thousands of jobs during the Great Recession. Many in the industry blame government regulation for that. Others blame wages that haven't risen with inflation. But most point to an aging workforce and a generation of young workers that just aren't exactly enticed by a career like trucking.
ELLEN VOIE: And not just the trucking industry. I think all trades are suffering from the same situation, where everyone wants their kids to go to college and not get their hands dirty.
ROTT: Ellen Voie is the president of Women in Trucking, a group that tries to encourage the employment of women in the trucking industry. Voie's been in the trucking industry for most of her life. And she says that the industry is far more receptive to women than it ever has been before. But they still have a long ways to go in terms of attitudes and numbers. Attitudes because Voie says sexism and harassment are still problems.
VOIE: So there's still drivers out there who think women shouldn't have a place in the trucking industry. But they're few and far between - unfortunately, they're vocal.
ROTT: And numbers because the most recent labor statistics show that just over 5 percent of the trucking workforce are women. Voie thinks it's a little higher than that, but not by much. And she thinks that it's in the industry's best interests to change that.
VOIE: I would venture to say that if we could double the percentage of women working in the trucking industry, we could solve the immediate qualified driver shortages.
ROTT: And those perceptions of what a trucker should look like? Well, that might change with it. Nathan Rott, NPR News.
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