FULL TRANSCRIPT – Women in Trucking with Ellen Voie
Natasha Cary: Welcome to Over the Threshold Podcast, produced by Certification of Delivery Excellence, also known as CODE. I’m your host, Natasha Cary, owner and president of CODE, where we offer online education for last-mile delivery personnel. To learn more about CODE certifications, visit our website: codetrained.com. The purpose of this podcast is to deliver the journey of individuals in the Final Mile/Last Mile white glove industry. As CODE is an educational company, we hope through these stories you can learn something new. Maybe we teach you something about an individual you know, or we introduce you to someone you’ve always wanted to learn more about. Above all, we hope we can leave you inspired. Let’s get started.
Natasha: Welcome to the CODE podcast. I’m so excited about our guest today, Ellen Voie. I met Ellen at the NHDA Conference in August last year. She led a discussion at the Women’s Council and presented on women equality in the trucking industry. My feminist side drank it all up, and I was very excited to get to know more about Ellen and chat to about her initiatives. Hi, Ellen. Thank you for being here today. How are you?
Ellen Voie: I’m doing great and thank you for having me on. I appreciate the conversation.
Natasha: Thank you. I’m excited to chat more about Women in Trucking. Now you founded Women in Trucking in 2007, and the goal was, and it still is today, to highlight women in trucking, their accomplishments and creating more opportunities for women in the industry. So I wanted to talk a little bit about what Women In Trucking looked like in 2007 and how you got started.
Ellen: Well, I was working for a large Mid-Western trucking company, and they said, “Figure out how to attract and retain non-traditional groups” and that included returning military, Hispanics, seniors and women. So I started doing my research on what brings female drivers into the industry, what attracts them to a company, and at the time I was working on my pilot’s license, and I belonged to an organization called Women in Aviation, and it struck me that there wasn’t a Women in Trucking Association. So using my association background, I had formally run Trucker Buddy International, a pen-pal program, I put together a board of directors, got an attorney to help me do all the paperwork and in March of 2007 we had our very first board meeting and ironically it was all women. We weren’t a very diverse organization then [laughter] but that’s changed. But yeah, we wrote the mission. The mission is pretty simple: it’s just to increase the numbers of women employed in the trucking industry and not just as drivers, but as technicians and engineers and women who own dealerships and truck driving schools, trucking companies and safety directors. So it’s all women in the industry who we represent and who we work to increase their ranks because women are very under-represented at all levels.
Natasha: Absolutely. And you mentioned diversity on your board, and I would imagine that in an industry as a whole, you need diversity in order to have these conversations and create these opportunities. I would imagine that in a male-dominated industry, you need, not just from diversity in ethnicity, but you also want men to be a part of this conversation because they’re the ones that are in the position to create these opportunities as well.
Ellen: You have that exactly right. And so half our board is men, and also about 15% of our members are men. I love it when I’m at a trade show and a truck driver walks up to me and he says, “Hey, I’m a member of Women in Trucking”, and I’m really proud of that because I like to tell people we’re not necessarily for women, we’re about women. So it’s…
Ellen: …how do we make this industry more attractive to women. And guess what? Men support that initiative as well.
Natasha: That’s exciting to hear. Well, I love all your initiatives. I mean, I come from a marketing background, and I’m always very appreciative of marketing efforts, and your team is always coming up with amazing, creative initiatives from Clare the Truck Driver Doll… [laughter]
Natasha: …to your social media presence, your blogging, you have the conference. You started the new ambassador program, which we’d love to hear more about. But how are you always innovating and finding ways to connect to the community? I would think that that’s something that to keep everybody engaged, you’re always having to come up with ideas and you guys are coming up with awesome ideas. Tell me a little bit about that process. How do you keep it going?
Ellen: Well, it’s really about listening to our members. If our members say, “Hey, have you thought about this?” or “Can you do this or address this issue?” We listen to them, and then we try to fix it. So let’s say for example, many years ago, for women to fit in the cab of a truck a lot of times, especially if they were shorter, they would have to sit on a pillow or put something under their feet to reach the pedals. So we went to the truck manufacturers and said, “Hey, trucks should be just as comfortable for women as they are for men. Especially since so many women run in a team configuration with a significant other”. So the truck manufacturers are like, “Yeah. You’re right” and so they listened to our members, had our members come in, sit in the cab of the truck and give them feedback. It’s things like that. Here’s another example. If truck stops don’t have enough showers or restrooms for women, or if they aren’t as easily accessible. Maybe the men’s shower is in the front of the truck stop, and the women have to go way in the back somewhere, whatever. We’ll point that out and say, “Hey, have you thought about parity and making a level playing field for all women?” And even things like offering products in the convenience store for women, or gloves that fit, clothing that fits. Things like that. So when our members tell us ‘we’re struggling with this’, then we’ll try to help fix it.
Natasha: Well that’s amazing. Having that advocacy for women and creating opportunities is definitely something that is admirable for your organization and really amazing at creating opportunities. Along those lines, what do you think is the biggest obstacle for women in the industry, or for opportunities being available to women in the industry?
Ellen: The biggest obstacle is that women don’t picture themselves in the trucking industry. And I can tell you when I go to an event, when it’s a conference, I’ll ask all the women in audience: “How many of you in high school or college said, ‘I want to go into the trucking industry?’.” And women rarely raise their hands. Some do, but we come into this industry in a backwards way. Including myself. I actually was working in a steel fabricating plant in the drafting department, and they came in and asked if I wanted to move to the traffic department and they sent me to school for traffic and transportation management. So the biggest issue is that women don’t picture themselves in the trucking industry. And you sit here in marketing. There’s marketing in the trucking industry, there’s economy in the trucking industry, there’s recruiting in the trucking…
Ellen: …industry. It’s saying, you know what? We have great jobs here, and we want you and you’re valued, and you’re certainly welcome to come to the trucking industry. So that’s our biggest obstacle. But the way we address that is by sharing stories. We have a Member of the Month, and we share a story every month. And last month it was a woman who pals horses. It could be women who own truck driver schools or truck dealerships or mechanics. So we want to tell their stories so that other women outside the industry look at their story and say, ‘You know what? I could actually do that.’ So we feature one of our members every month and tell their stories so that people can see their story and say, ‘Hey, I never thought about doing that job’ or ‘I didn’t think about it.’ So you have to see women doing jobs that you might not have thought of. So I can tell you, 13 years ago, when I would ask women, ”Hey, have you ever thought of driving a truck?” They look at me like I had five heads. They’d say “I can’t do that, I’m not mechanically minded” or “I’m not big and burly or I’m not…” and I’d look at them and I’d go, but you can do it and we’ll teach you. You know?
Ellen: That’s why you mentioned earlier our doll and that’s why we created Clare the Truck Driver doll so that kids can play with a truck driver doll and think about that as a career. And then we created the Girl Scout Transportation Patch. And over 1,500 girls have now earned a patch in supply chain, and the activity book that goes with it talks about how the grain from the field goes to the bakery on a truck and then goes from the bakery to the packaging on a truck and so on. So we want kids to look at a truck on the road and say, “Mommy, daddy! That could be my cookies in that truck!” or maybe it’s the milk that I’m going to drink with my cookies, or whatever. But we want them to look at a truck on the road and think about how it applies to them.
Natasha: That is fascinating, and it’s not just marketing what you’re doing, and the opportunities. It’s really just highlighting all the massive possibilities. As a kid, you don’t know what you’re going to be when you grow up. Gosh, I’m in my 40s and I’ve reinvented myself a few times, right? So I think that that’s amazing. You’re very much holistic about your approach. So when you guys are working together on the board, where do your initiatives come from? Do you do any focus groups? I know you listen to your members, but where do you think most of your success comes from building these ideas?
Ellen: Well first of all, I mentioned earlier the Women in Aviation Association. I take a lot of ideas from them and I tell them that. [laughter] I share ideas. When women in construction or women in mining, we talk they’re like, ‘Hey, can I use that idea?’ and I’m like, ‘Of course you can use the idea!’ Because we don’t mind. You might as well share. So some of the ideas come from other associations but every year in January, our board of directors meets for two days in a strategic planning session, and board members will say ‘Hey, have you thought about doing this?” So one of the things that came out of this January’s session was the Driver Ambassador Program that will be trucker, trailer and we’re retrofitting the trailer and wrapping it so that the driver can go to schools and truck shows and things like that, and people will be able to walk in and learn more about the industry. Another thing that came out of the strategic planning session was the idea to create chapters. So we’re working on having chapters, like regional or local chapters, so that the networking can continue throughout the year because there are conferences once a year and I’m hoping that it will be in September. Our conference is amazing because we’ve had 5 years of annual conferences. The first year we had 300 people. The second year we had 400, the third year we had 600, the fourth year we had 800, and last year, this past year we had 1,100 registered attendees. So we want to keep that momentum going and provide not just networking opportunities but educational and fun opportunities for women to get together and discuss issues in the transportation industry.
Natasha: I love that you’re sharing with the other associations. There’s a book, I don’t remember the author, but it’s called Steal Like An Artist. If you’ve never read it, it’s great. It’s a quick read, and it’s just about how when you see something out there that somebody else is doing, take it, make it your own. Don’t plagiarize but share ideas. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And it’s just about getting out there and getting it done. So I love that. I love that women are banding together and coming up with ideas to keep things going. That’s awesome. [laughter] Yes. My feminist side is very much roaring right now. [laughter] Now we talked a little bit about hopefully getting the conference happening in September. Of course, we are amid the COVID crisis the whole world is facing, and hopefully that, in some way, shape or form, the conference can happen. But you had mentioned that you’re doing an awesome partnership that will help your members with their mental health. Can you share a little bit bout that?
Ellen: Yes. I’m very excited about that. So we have a scholarship foundation, and I am one of the judges for the scholarships. When I was reading a lot of the scholarship applications for women applying for commercial driver’s licenses, it seemed like a lot of women come into this industry because they’re escaping something. Either an abusive relationship or something, and they want to come into the trucking industry to get away. Which is sad, but I realized, surely we are putting these women in a male-dominated environment without life skills. And so that became one of my passions: how do we help men and women understand how their life is going to change when they become a professional driver because they’re going to be away from home, they won’t have their family. There’s all kinds of issues. I found an organzation called Espyr, e-s-p-y-r, and they actually do counselling, and we work together. Thanks to Amazon paying for it, we’re offering every one of our driver’s members, which is about 1,300 of our 5,500 members, they’re getting free mental health counselling for 90 days thanks to Amazon and Espyr. I am so excited…
Ellen: …and to be able to have someone to call. These drivers are dealing with issues. They can’t find restrooms; they can’t find food. And they’re expected to wear masks and have personal protection when they go in to deliver. Where do you get that stuff? So they’re dealing with a lot. They’re on the front lines.
Natasha: Absolutely. Right now, it’s the supply chain of just getting things going and keeping things moving, so to speak. It’s tough. So that’s awesome. A lot of times, reaching out for help is not something people do, and women are sometimes just bad about that because we’ll just get it done, we’ll figure it out. So it’s nice to have that option, and it’s there for them and hopefully makes it more approachable for them to reach out. So as a leader and role model to many women in the industry, how do you personally stay motivated and focused? What’s your special sauce?
Ellen: I think my passion is what keeps me going. When I see the drivers out there during a COVID-19 crisis, my heart just goes out to them and I want to make their life better. And I want to be a disruptor in this industry. I want the trucking industry to think about things differently and look at things differently. I can tell you 13 years ago, when I started Women in Trucking, trucking companies would say: ‘Well, Ellen. We don’t care about their age, their ethnicity or their gender, we just want good drivers.” And my response to them would be, “Okay. Well, how come all your uniforms are for men? How come you don’t have restrooms for women? How come the trucks are built for men?” You know? And they’d go, “Oh…”. They hadn’t thought about it. And over the years we’ve have found a lot of data that shows that women are safer drivers. In fact, the American Transportation Research Institute found that men were 20% more likely to be involved in a crash in a statistically significant area. And so that makes women safer drivers, and anecdotally, companies tell me that women are often better with equipment and customers and paperwork. So why wouldn’t we want women behind the wheel of the truck? Women are more risk-averse. We take fewer risks than men because we’re more collaborative and team-focused. Which again, is the kind of person you want. You want a person who is a team player. So women make great drivers, and now trucking companies are saying, ‘We see what women bring to the industry’, and they’re actually celebrating their female drivers, and they’re bringing them in and talking to them and saying, ‘What can we do differently? How can we attract more women?’ If there’s one thing that I’m proud of is the change in the culture of the industry to start focusing more on half the population that they weren’t even attracting a few years ago.
Natasha: That’s amazing. You’re a pioneer woman. You’re my hero.
Natasha: So what’s next? Where do you see the future of Women in Trucking?
Ellen: Well, I see the chapters growing. I see the groups having local or regional meetings, and that to me is very exciting. I’m also very excited about the Driver Ambassador Program. I’d also like to do more for the driver population. We have a lot of trucking companies that are members, truck driving schools that are members, dealerships who are members, manufacturers who are members but for some reason drivers are not really apt to join an organization and pay dues. So there’s 11,000 “members” on our Facebook page, and I only have 1,300 drivers who are dues-paying members, who we’re offering the free mental health counselling to. So how do I turn all these…
Ellen: …friends of Women in Trucking into members? And a membership is $30 a year. I mean, it’s not…
Natasha: Oh wow. That’s very affordable.
Ellen: … yeah. Right? For a driver it’s $30 a year. How can we support drivers by offering them all of our resources and by having them join? So that’s a challenge.
Natasha: Mhm. That would be something that you’ll be working on for the next initiative.
Ellen: I think so.
Natasha: The women’s stories. You’d mentioned that’s kind of the way to appeal and attract. I wanted to mention Megyn Kelly had highlighted one of the stories, is that correct?
Ellen: Yeah, we had one of our image team members on the Megyn Kelly show, and Deb LaBree is her name. Deb Labree is actually the head admin for our Facebook group, and she’s on my board of directors. Our bylaws require that we have a professional river on the board so we had Deb Labree on the Megyn Kelly show and when she talked about her job and how much she loves seeing the sunrise and seeing the country, our phones were ringing off the hook. It was unbelievable. People were emailing us and women were saying, “Hey, I’d never thought about driving a truck, but the way she describes it, I think I’d like to do that.” So you know, we need to get more of our members out there telling their stories. Deb Labree is on our image team. Our image team, we have the United States Image Team and our Canadian Image Team, and they’re comprised of women who are ready to speak to the media, available to do ride-alongs, especially with the media. We gave Diane Sawyer a ride-along for a 60 Minutes 2020 episode, and we gave a USA Today editor a ride-along. We’ve given some legislators or regulator ride-alongs because we want them to see first-hand what a driver’s life is like. And recently because of COVID-19, we’ve been getting so many calls. We just had a driver on NBC, we had someone in the New York Times recently, the Wall Street Journal. It’s just been amazing, all the attention that our drivers have been getting because the people outside the industry are realizing the value of what our drivers are doing in this crisis.
Natasha: Right. And they’re probably really interested to know how everybody’s pivoting with an industry that is required. It’s an essential to get things to where they need to get going. We can’t stop that. So that’s interesting. Well, that’s awesome. So hopefully all this attention will increase the membership. Which is the goal, right?
Ellen: That’s correct!
Natasha: Well I loved our conversation. It was awesome to get to know a little bit more about all your initiatives. I can’t wait to catch up with you in another year and see where you’re at then, and hopefully you have a massive increase in members. I loved chatting with you.
Ellen: Well thank you so much for having me on, and I hope you get to come to our conference because you’ll find it amazing.
Natasha: Yes. I’m definitely planning on joining. Absolutely.
Ellen: All right. Thank you.
Natasha: Thanks, Ellen.
Natasha: Thank you so much for listening to the Over the Threshold Podcast. If you liked what you heard on this episode, I’d love it if you’d subscribe, leave a review or share with a friend you know who would like to hear it, too. To learn more about CODE certifications, visit our website codetrained.com