Originally from New Brunswick, Sara Parlee-Nickerson has spent the last several years hauling drilling rigs in northern Alberta. She praises the company she works for, VDM Trucking, and has made lots of friends on the road. Many colleagues became a chosen family.
The beginning of her career was a different experience.
In 10 years of hauling goods in the oil industry, Parlee-Nickerson says she’s faced sexism, unwelcome comments, unwanted looks, and unfair pay. But she kept at the job to prove women can do it just as well as men can.
Her first job involved driving a VAC truck. “It’s not meant for a small person to be doing that type of work. So, you’re hauling hoses and different things, like hundreds of feet of it, and digging to clean up spills and different stuff in the oil field,” she says.
And in an environment where there was “nothing but men”, the 120-pound and 5’2 driver had to put in a lot of effort to prove herself. Even when she found out she was the lowest-paid employee. Swampers were paid more, even though drivers were responsible for most of the work and the truck, she adds.
“I may have mentioned getting a raise. And they would say, ‘Well, you can’t lift tire chains.’ And I would just look at them and be like, ‘I lift tire chains every day. What do you mean?’ They would come up with an excuse. If I went to a different company maybe it would have been different. But it is what it is.”
This wasn’t the only challenge she had to overcome. Parlee-Nickerson also remembers the sexist insults. “One of them looked at me and he said, ‘You’re an HR nightmare waiting to happen.’” Situations like that make her understand why some women are reluctant to join the industry. It can be daunting, she admits.
“But I’ve been a ‘take-no-shit-from-nobody’ person my whole life”
Drawing from her previous experience in sales, Parlee-Nickerson says she mastered the skills of mirroring personalities and understanding the true intentions hidden behind words. This is why she never went to the HR department and complain, because she believes the purpose of such comments and remarks is to “break you”.
Instead, she found it more efficient to respond with a clever remark.
Looking back, Parlee-Nickerson doesn’t think complaining would have helped her achieve goals. Brushing off the comments and putting in effort, on the other hand, did pay dividends.
The next job involved hauling frac sand, the small particles that along with water are injected into rock formations during the fracking process. Moving drilling rigs came next.
And she takes pride in the fact that she’s always driven off-road, treating highways as nothing more than a path to bush roads. “So, you really learn how to drive.”
Nuances of oversized loads
With oversized loads like drilling rigs, there are additional nuances to learn. But she enjoys every part of the challenge.
There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes of an oversized load, Parlee-Nickerson says. She must ensure everything is well-organized, from measuring and securing loads, to applying warning flags and reviewing permits.
Longhaul trips to California and Newfoundland and Labrador added to the challenges. Driving across 13 states and three provinces, for example, involves rules unique to each jurisdiction.
While the company itself specifies pick-up and drop-off locations and provides permits, it’s up to drivers to measure the loads and ensure permits are accurate. “Some of them [permits] are real fun, and just have a bunch of numbers on them east to west. You’ll typically get a permit the night before, and you sit there, you get out the map and you pin every single place you need to turn. Because you have bridges you have to avoid, and some rural routes that you have to go down.”
At the end of the day, trucking is what you make of it, she believes. For Parlee-Nickerson it became an opportunity to travel and meet people. That’s outweighed the negative challenges she had to overcome early in her career – and why she encourages other women to joint the industry.
Today she’s on maternity leave, expecting her first child, but plans to return to trucking duties once the baby grows a little. Walking away from the industry for a year will be hard, but she’s excited about her new role, too.
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