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How a day in a UPS big rig opened my mind to trucking

Is trucking an untapped career route for millennial women? I sat shotgun on a 12-hour UPS shift to find out.
Writer Nicole Spector and driver Becky Ascencio getting ready to start their shift driving a UPS truck
Writer Nicole Spector getting ready to start her 12-hour shift with UPS driver, Becky Ascencio.Nicole Spector

As a child, I dreamed of countless careers I could pursue as an adult. For a while I wanted to be a teacher, then a veterinarian, later a pop singer, and eventually the writer I became. But I recall, from a young passenger's perspective, thinking that being a truck driver would be fun. I liked the idea of venturing out on the open road, looking down on all the other cars as you barreled past. I even liked the idea of truck stops, since the stores there tended to tout odd novelties, random souvenirs and a comprehensive collection of snacks.

But last week, as I was buckled in the passenger seat of an enormous feeder tractor (aka, a big rig), with two trailers attached to the back (making for a load of about two tons), I knew was out of my element. UPS arranged for my drive with driver Becky Ascencio, while I was interviewing the company for a story I was writing on the growing shortage of drivers, and how millennials could possibly fill the gap. Becky (I feel like I know her so well now that it would be weird to call her by her last name) is a 56-year-old female driver who just celebrated 30 years as a UPS driver. I met her at her base dock in Sylmar, California and signed on for a 12-hour shift that would take us up to Fresno for unloading and reloading, and then back down.

Being On The Road Can Be Exhausting, But The Love Of The Job Makes It Worth It

I didn’t really know what I was in for when I climbed the rather serious set of steps up to my seat in my boxy “browns” (company slang for the UPS uniform I was required to wear). Honestly, I was dreading the 12 hours on the road with only two 15 minute breaks and one half-hour lunch. “Aren’t there shorter shifts?” I whined. There are, but Becky is one of the few female feeder drivers in my area and she scarcely works less than 10 hours a shift. Though she did not disclose her pay, she makes the most you can as a UPS driver, paid an hourly wage and also provided full healthcare, a 401(k) plan and a pension. “I’m incredibly lucky,” she said. “I make great money, I work with wonderful people and sure it’s tough and exhausting, but I love my job.”

I instantly liked Becky. She patiently explained everything that went into operating the truck. She showed me how to lock and unlock dollies, hook up air tubes and check all the safety settings. And she was kind — repeatedly reminding me that we could take breaks whenever I wanted, that if I needed anything we would get it and erased my fears of being stranded post-shift at 3AM in the industrial city of Bell with no access to a Lyft or Uber. “I’m taking you to a well-lit area and I’m going to wait with you to make sure they come,” she said, without my even asking. “And if they don’t show, I’m driving you home.”

'You Need a Good Chiropractor to Do This Job'

So there we were, going 55 mph max and feeling every foot traveled like a sucker punch in the tailbone. “I always say you need a good chiropractor to do this job,” Becky said with a laugh as I tried and failed to hide my discomfort. “I’ll get used to it,” I said meekly, and surprisingly, I did. Though I can’t say I was ever quite prepared for the sensation of backing into a dock no matter how much Becky warned me. It essentially feels like you’re getting into a minor collision every time.

“Yeah, it’s actually easier to back into a dock with a stick shift,” Becky said. “These automatics are tougher.” I gaped at the thought of driving this thing manually. “These are a much smoother drive though generally. Nothing like the tractor stalling on you when you’re going uphill.”

You’re Alone On The Road, But Never Far From Help

“Has that ever happened to you?” I asked. “Oh sure, but you just don’t panic. I called my supervisor and they calmly walked me through it and it was fine. That’s the thing, you just have to stay calm and it will all work out.”

Becky also suggested that even though she’s on the road alone for long periods of time, she never really feels alone. Not only is her tractor synced to GPS tracking, she’s got local contacts she can reach out to anytime. Plus, she has great friends in other docks. When we unloaded in Fresno, we took a 9PM lunch break in the warehouse and Becky knew just about everybody there — all men, by the way (not a big surprise when you consider that only 7 percent of truck drivers are women).

Just One Of The Guys?

Initially I was self-conscious in the company of these guys. I had a certain impression of male truck drivers as being less than welcoming to women, and maybe even lewd. But all the men I met (who didn’t know I was a journalist until we left, and just assumed I was in training) were polite and professional. They also seemed to be looking out for all their colleagues, alerting Becky about road closures ahead and any other potential obstacles.

According to Ellen Voie, CAE of the Women In Trucking Association, my experience as a woman meeting “nice, accommodating male drivers” isn’t uncommon, and she notes that with a highly reputable company like UPS, I probably got “the best of the best” in most aspects of my experience, but welcoming men aren’t a given in this industry.

“This is a male-dominated field and in any environment that is, there are those men who think that women shouldn’t be doing the job,” noted Voie. “But that thinking is more prevalent among the boomer generation, and these folks are retiring. I think with the millennial generation, that attitude will die out.”

When I was in that driver’s cabin, observing Becky expertly strategize how to move two thousand pounds of cargo at a safe speed, my perspective reversed.

I Don’t Think This Job Is For Me, But It Could Be For Many Women

My experience on the road was enlightening in so many ways. It completely transformed my perspective on what being a trucker means, and who can do the job (anyone willing to get their hands dirty, spend long hours alone in less than comfortable seating arrangements and stay alert for those endless dark stretches). Moreover, it shifted how I see trucks on the road. Often when driving, I’d viewed trucks as personal inconveniences: taking up too much room, emitting too much exhaust and ultimately slowing my own commute down. But when I was in that driver’s cabin, observing Becky expertly strategize how to move two thousand pounds of cargo at a safe speed (on inclines, you’re only going 35 mph, and you really feel the weight of the load), my perspective reversed. It wasn’t the trucks that were annoying now; it was the regular cars, zipping and zooming like they owned the highway, often failing to even signal their abrupt lane changes. I shook my head at their swift sense of entitlement while we doing such hard work.

“Ever think you’d do this job?” Becky asked me late in the shift. By this point we’d gotten well past the awkwardness of our shared solitude and were full on blasting 70s hits and singing at the top of our lungs.

“You know, I would, but I don’t think I really want to,” I said. “Truthfully, it seems really hard.”

“Oh it’s tough alright, and it’s not for everybody,” she said. “But I do hope to see more women drivers.”

"Women generally pay more attention to detail than men. I'm told they're often better with paperwork, as well as with customers and also take better care of the equipment."

What will that take? According to WIT’s Voie, that 7 percent figure is ticking up slightly, and she expects to see it at about 10 or even 15 percent in the next five years as more millennials come onboard, and organizations like WIT advance in crushing stereotypes perpetuated in childhood that this job is for boys (they just released a truck driving doll named Clare). Not only would having more women join the industry help diversify it, it would probably also improve it.

“Women generally pay more attention to detail than men,” says Voie. “I'm told they're often better with paperwork, as well as with customers and also take better care of the equipment. I can tell you they take fewer risks, which is the kind of person you want behind an 18-wheeler. They bring a lot — they just don't know the industry has changed enough to [accommodate] them. It has, and it will continue to.”

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