Drivers and mentors connect at Women with Drive networking forum

by Harry Rudolfs

Women are hugely underrepresented in the trucking industry. They account for 48% of the Canadian workforce yet only 3% of truck drivers are female – but Trucking HR Canada wants to change that. At a recent symposium held on Nov. 12 at Toronto’s Sandman Signature Hotel, the non-profit industry advocacy group brought together drivers, mentors, trainees and other stakeholders in a panel discussion and networking forum. “Driver Connect and Share” is a new event from Trucking HR Canada and part of its Women with Drive initiative.

“This is the first time we’ve done something like this,” said Angela Splinter CEO of Trucking HR Canada. “At our Women with Drive Leadership Summit in March, what we heard from drivers is that they wanted the opportunity to come together with other drivers and network.”

The event was moderated by Stan Campbell from Trucker Radio and the opening address was given by Joanne Millen-Mackenzie, a “star” in her own right. Millen-Mackenzie, a driver for Highland Transport, was named 2016’s Highway Star of the Year by Today’s Trucking and was the first female driver to receive the award. She’s also a tireless advocate for breast cancer research as is evident by her custom-decaled “Trucking for a Cure” Peterbilt.

Millen-Mackenzie recalled her own introduction to the occupation.

“Twenty-four years ago I had a mentor who believed in me. Back is those days there was a real gender gap,” she said. “But he pushed me hard and was able to see beyond my gender. Things have changed since. We have more and more women in leadership roles, and the door is now open.”

Mentorship figured largely in the discussions, as two-thirds of women in the industry think it’s important to have a mentor, according to Trucking HR Canada figures.

“Some women actually do better with a man as mentor. It all depends on compatibility,” added Millen-Mackenzie. “But the key thing is that some companies are putting forth the effort to make their driver-trainers into mentors, and that they have to be more compassionate about womens’ needs. Make sure your mentors really want to do their job, because they are going to make a difference in someone’s life.”

Michele Joslin, an instructor at Humber College, suggested that women are sometimes better students than men.

“They’re easier to train on the stick shift,” she said. But Joslin also thinks that, “women are their own worst enemies” when it comes to considering trucking as a career. “They look at a truck and say, ‘I couldn’t possibly drive that.’ But you get them in a cab and adjusting the mirrors and they realize it’s not so hard.”

Another panelist, Shelley Uvanile-Hesch, a driver for Sharp Transportation, thinks that recruitment should begin in the schools, and a special appeal should be made to high school girls. “Right now, it’s not even considered a part of their career path,” she said.

Uvanile-Hesch, who is also CEO of the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada, suggested that once a company has hired women drivers, they should do what they can to retain them.

“Talk to your drivers and find out what they want and what they need. Reach out to them, this is an important resource.”

The event was also attended by 11 bright young women who are being sponsored by the Community MicroSkills Development Centre in west end Toronto. This non-profit organization actively reaches out to unemployed or under-employed lower income women and sets them on a path towards getting their A/Z licence and achieving employment in the industry.

The sponsorship is part of MicroSkills’ Women in Transportation program, and includes eight weeks of upgrading after which the women are directly enrolled with other students in a seven-week A/Z driving course at the Humber College Transportation Centre, or another OTTA driving school. This is followed by two weeks of unpaid placement at a transportation company, and another 12 weeks of job search support services if needed.

MicroSkills has put something like 80 women through this program in the last four years with a 70% success rate, according to Corrina Leblond, Women in Transportation program coordinator.

“The women are carefully vetted and we don’t hide anything from them. We’re preparing them for long-haul jobs, among others, because that’s what’s out there.”

One of the panel members was a recent graduate of the MicroSkills-sponsored program and had just been hired by J.G. Drapeau Transport. Lorraine Lewis is a former machine operator and forklift driver and was paired with mentor Bill DeJong, a trainer for the company.

Lewis admitted to being nervous about being her new job.

“Every Sunday night I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about what I’m going to have to do on Monday morning. Then, as the week goes on I get feeling more confident.”

She stressed how important it is that should could phone someone she trusted when problems arise, or just to ask for directions to get into a customer’s loading dock.

But overall Lewis thinks she has made the right career choice .

“I’ve always wanted to drive truck,” she said. “I’ve raised my children and now I’m doing what I want.”

Sponsorships like MicroSkills and better mentoring might be keys to getting more women involved in trucking.

“Our Women with Drive program is one of our most popular and mentorship is a critical part of that,” said Angela Splinter.

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