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A Record Number Of Women Are Driving Trucks To Pay The Bills

NOEL KING, HOST:

Record numbers of women are getting jobs as truckers. Demand for new drivers and higher pay are big factors.

Here's Stephen Bisaha with the Gulf States Newsroom.

STEPHEN BISAHA, BYLINE: It's worth remembering that trucking is a pretty rough job. For long hauls, it means sleeping in a cot behind the front seats. All those hours of sitting behind the wheel can lead to blood clots. Plus, you're driving around this 70-foot-long vehicle dangerous enough it needs two different horns.

PAMELA WILLIAMS: This the air horn.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR HORN HONKING)

WILLIAMS: This the city horn.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY HORN HONKING)

BISAHA: Pamela Williams is a truck driving instructor with DSC Training Academy in Jackson, Miss.

TIFFANY HATHORN: Now, if you're in a scary situation, the people not doing what they supposed do, I hit the air horn. That kind of startle them, but it let them know, a truck is in your area; please get your life together.

BISAHA: Yet despite how intimidating the job could be, more women today are taking the wheel and driving across the country. Williams says the main reason comes down to pay.

WILLIAMS: 'Cause I mean, you looking at - I could go to a job and work 40 hours and bring home $400. I could go out here and drive a week and make a thousand dollars - a quick thousand dollars - doing something that I like to do. That's good.

BISAHA: A lot of the retail and restaurant jobs typically held by women were much more likely to vanish during the pandemic. Some trucking jobs also disappeared early last year when everyone went on lockdown. But demand for drivers started skyrocketing soon after, as online shopping surged. That's led to higher pay, which has attracted a lot more people, including women. The number of female truck drivers has jumped almost double digits in the last year, according to the U.S. Labor Department. At the same time, not enough men have been coming back to trucking jobs during the pandemic.

Here's Williams again.

WILLIAMS: Guys, you better watch out 'cause this right here is a woman's industry from now on.

BISAHA: One woman who felt the call of the road was Tiffany Hathorn. She held other jobs and even tried owning her own business. But she just couldn't make enough to save.

HATHORN: It was like I kept hitting this ceiling financially, and I couldn't quite get to where I wanted to go. And I was still working from check to check.

BISAHA: Yet there's also plenty keeping women like Hathorn out of trucking - the big one being child care. After all, it's not a nine-to-five. Drivers are often away from home for weeks at a time. Hathorn had her now 11- and 14-year-old sons to think about.

HATHORN: I just kind of threw it out of my head because, you know, I just didn't think anybody would be able to watch over my boys when I'm not able to.

BISAHA: But about a year ago, her mom convinced her they can make it work. She could watch the kids while Hathorn could video chat in from the road. There are still other challenges, like the long, lonely hours.

HATHORN: I'm an only child, so I welcome (laughter) being alone. But for a lot of people, that's hard.

BISAHA: Trucking's also not known for being the most welcoming industry for women.

HATHORN: Of course, there's some guys who are, you know, not as gentleman-like, so - but I haven't had any safety issues.

BISAHA: And a year into driving, trucking did for Hathorn what it promised. She's saving money and now gets to take her kids camping and on vacations. This year, she expects to make about $70,000.

HATHORN: I'm not struggling like I was before. I mean, that's an awful feeling when you're struggling from check to check. But now, when those issues come up, I'm just like, OK, we'll get it done; we'll pay for it. And, you know, that's a huge, huge, huge, huge difference. And so I have more of a peace of mind now.

BISAHA: Hathorn gets a lot of Facebook messages from women and men asking her if they should get into trucking, too. She makes sure to tell them all the good and the bad, including the missed birthdays. But she says it's worth it for a bigger paycheck and the confidence that came with it.

For NPR News, I'm Stephen Bisaha in Jackson, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOANNE SHAW TAYLOR'S "BONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.