Easier to steer than my Punto
All belly and no brains. It's what most people think of lorry drivers. But the industry wants to shake up preconceptions and attract more women. So what can a new female recruit expect?
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
It sounds like the start of a bad joke. What do you get if you cross one careful, female Fiat Punto driver with a 54ft articulated lorry, that weighs 32 tonnes when fully loaded?
But the bigger joke for some is that I'm the answer to the haulage industry's prayers. Facing a recruitment crisis, I'm the type of driver who could steer it clear of danger. In the world of lorry driving, women are much in demand.
If you picture the average British lorry driver, chances are it's a white, middle-aged man. The UK haulage industry is dominated by them and over the next 10 years as many as 80,000 could retire.
Surprisingly smooth to drive
It will leave a large hole to plug, at a time when haulage firms are having trouble recruiting. As many as 24,000 each year will be needed, says Skills for Logistics (SfL) - the body overseeing lorry driver training in the UK.
It could affect us all. The doomsday scenario of empty supermarket shelves is dismissed, but if firms have to ramp up pay to recruit drivers, that cost could trickle down to the consumer.
The situation has forced the industry to take a long, hard look at itself and ask why half of the population feel excluded from taking a job as a driver of Large Goods Vehicles (LGVs). Currently only 1.3% of the UK's lorry drivers are female.
Mostly, it only has itself to blame. With strippers and even a sex shop - albeit recently closed - a "feature" at some road-side truck stops, this is one notoriously unreconstructed industry. Little has been done, until now, to change that image.
Which is why I find myself at the wheel of a hulking articulated lorry somewhere in Essex.
The location of the depot, run by Swedish commercial vehicle manufacturer Scania, is hardly promising. The most glamorous thing about this faceless trading estate is its "famous" Circus Tavern - home to darts tournaments. On weekends, the sound of pneumatic brakes gives way to the sight of pneumatic women for the tavern's "glamour" events.
I feel the weight of expectation on my shoulders. I don't want to live up to any of the ridiculous stereotypes about women drivers - scatty, brainless, always doing our make-up... My instructor Phil Evans has comforting words.
300,000 LGV drivers in UK
52% of drivers are over 45
1.4% are under 25
1.3% are female
2% from ethnic minorities
"Women are usually easier to teach, they listen and pick it up much quicker than men. Blokes usually get in a vehicle thinking they already know everything about driving and there's nothing I can teach them."
Looking at the dashboard, I don't know how they come to such a conclusion. It resembles an air-traffic control centre - a vast swathe of dials and lights.
"It's a much more sophisticated industry these days," says Phil. With top-of-the-range lorries costing close to £75,000, he's not joking.
But, for me, the most daunting prospect is the gears. Articulated lorries have up to 16, with switches on the stick to change through them. And you don't pull off in first, it's usually third. It all feels very alien, but I get going without stalling.
It may be 54ft long, but thanks to this new generation of power-assisted, super-responsive vehicles, the ride is smooth and the controls light to the touch.
Turning the wheel takes less effort than in my Punto, which lacks power steering and elicits beads of sweat when parking at the supermarket.
The dark clouds descend
My instructor's conclusions about my lorry driving skills? Excellent clutch control, apparently some people take weeks to reach my level. I was even asked if I'd ever driven a LGV before. Maybe it's an attempt to butter me up, but I feel proud.
Yet driving is only one battle in the war to win women's hearts and minds - and the easiest.
With the industry so male dominated for so long, some truck stops don't even have women's toilets and class a healthy meal as a side order of cooked tomatoes with a fry up. Things are changing but more needs to be done, says SfL. The major problem is most facilities are out of the industry's control.
"We all need to prepare for women drivers," says a spokeswoman. "Warehouses, roadside facilities and public perception all need to improve."
There are also misconceptions such as the long working hours and heavy lifting. Possibly the biggest is that it's a job for people who can't do anything else.
Its champions argue it's skilled and drivers can rack up £50,000 a year and travel the world. Companies in Canada will even sponsor drivers who want to move from the UK.
The UK's most famous trucker?
"It can be whatever you want it to be," says my trainer Phil, who has been in the industry for 16 years.
"If you want to deliver goods in your local town and finish in time to pick up the kids from school you can. If you want to see the world and earn some good money you can.
"There's just something about driving a big lorry, most people secretly want to try it out."
For the industry's sake, let's hope he's right.
Below is a selection of your comments.
I'm reminded of a woman I became acquainted with a few years ago at a local retirement home. She was a 70ish, pleasant, grandmotherly type with a quick smile and a jolly sense of humor. Only after I got to know her fairly well did it come out that during the 40s and 50s she had been a truck driver, driving both dump trucks hauling gravel and over-the-road semis (articulated lorries). (And she still loved to ride motorcycles.)
Dan Hicks, Byron MN USA
From a drivers perspective the whole industry, as well as the nanny state government needs a shake up. To get to artic standard means PASSING two LGV tests these days. Truck drivers are treated with contempt at just about every destination and the entire country is sadly lacking in facilities inbetween. Drivers hours regulations? In which other job can you be heavily fined for taking a minute short of your 45 minute break and now even for taking a 30 minute break before a 15 minute rest? Until the public at large can be shown that we are not the scum of the earth nothing will change.
Mark McGregor, Peterborough
Well, i've been a trucker for ten years so us girls are out there!! C'mon ladies - join up and lets change things!
Sandy Crach, Leeds, UK
In Belgium we have female lorrydrivers for some time now, I saw the first one in the winter of 1975 ! ! When you talk to their male collegues the reaction is always "so what , she's one of the boys!". Of course you have somme guys who make stereotype jokes etc but we do also have that kind of remarks in football ! And from a scientific point of view they are no better/worst drivers than their male collegues.
Paul Navez, Herne/Belgium
I drove class 1 in England for nearly 20 years i have now emigrated to Canada... Why?
Less traffic... more money.... easier life and most importantly i am not treated like something a dog left behind and you trod in.
the facilities here and in the USA are first class resonably priced and clean i can have a shower and 3 course meal in a truck stop for under $20 u.s you would be lucky to just park for that let alone eating in the U.K.
I have been over here for 2 years now and both myself and my wife (she dont drive) have both said the same , it will take a undertaker to get us back to the UK.
i would offer 1 piece of advice to anyone thinking of coming here be careful there are some excellant companies but also so downright awful ones
Nigel Burgess, Winnipeg Canada
Food services def. need to be revamped. Most on offer are fatty, stodgy, and unhealthy. Not only is it unhealthy, but its unappetising, even to middle aged white men who drive a lorry, such as my own husband.
Kimberly S., Stoke on trent
My husband bought me a lesson for a wedding anniversary gift because he knows I have alwsy wanted to drive a really big truck. It is much easier than you think. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
tracey saunders, surrey
I know a married couple who are both RNs (SRNs in Britain) who give up their jobs, sell their house and possessions when they are having a hard time financially and take to the road as Long Distance Lorry drivers. They share the driving, and live in the lorry for months. When financially more stable, they go back to work as nurses again until the next time.
Ken, Cleburne, Texas, USA
I am a New Zealander who spent around 20 years driving trucks of all shapes and sizes there. I came to England intent on furthering my career. I passed my Class 2 licence easily but I soon found that no one would hire me because I didn't have any UK experience. The job is exactly the same; put freight on the truck, drive to the other end, take freight off the truck. NZ and UK road rules are exactly the same except for one. I was fully prepared to get my Class 1 at great expense but with little chance of finding a job, I decided against it. As far as I'm concerned, the driving industry only has itself to blame for the lack of drivers here. No one is willing to "take a chance" on an (in)experienced driver.
I used to be a long-distance truck driver but quit the industry because of the unsociable hours. Maybe I did it at the wrong age - I started when I was 21. But the novelty of driving a state-of-the-art 60-ft shiny Scania soon wore off when my friends stopped bothering to ask me if I wanted to go out in the evening for a drink, see a band or watch a film. I couldn't join them, as I was always working. The fact is, lorry drivers (certainly those on artics) don't have a life for those five or six days that you are on duty each week. You're either working or sleeping. To add insult to injury, the pay is peanuts. I used to earn a quarter of what my builder friends were earning every week for twice the hours. I hate to deter anyone who's thinking of taking up a career in transport but it's a tough life. Still, I always feel a glimmer of hope when I read reports about truck driver recruitment crises. I always think maybe this is just the kick up the backside the industry needs to g et employers and the government to get a better pay deal for drivers for the appalling hours they do.
But despite my negativity towards the industry, I really used to enjoy the freedom the job gave me and sometimes when I'm having a stressful day at the office I long to be back in the cab, where no one can bother me. If you don't want a boss breathing down your neck but don't mind working 13-hour days then this could be the job for you. You'll also get to know the country and beyond very well. I can go anywhere by road now in the UK without the help of a map. But what use that is to anyone other than truckers I don't know!
Mark Binnersley, Beijing
My step- father in-law is a lorry (truck) driver and has been for 20 or so years. He loves being able to get out of the house and being able to see the different parts of the country from his driver's side window. I always thought that it must be so thrilling to be behind the wheel of such powerful force and I never get tired of listening to the big engines firing up. I say bring on the proper facilities at lorry stops for the women and may they long be successful in this exciting endeavor!
Mary, Joshua, TX USA
I've got nothing against more women becoming lorry drivers if that's what they want to do. But PLEASE can there be sensible steps taken to get more freight off of the roads and onto rail! This will overcome the shortage of drivers, ease congestion, and be good for the environment.
Sue, Ipswich, Suffolk
During the 80's I worked for Morrell's Brewery in Oxford. Very often a 32 ft. tanker from Alton would deliver, driven by a young girl in her early twenties. St. Thomas Street was very narrow and most male drivers would park across the gate. Not this lass. She would reverse the articulated unit into the yard without any hesitation or problems. A credit to female drivers, even if it does hurt to say so.
A true professional driver.
Ian C. Fergusson, Oxford
All very well agencies crying out for new recruits but when you've passed your course it's virtually impossible to get a job in haulage industry without previous experience. I tried for 2 years to get a job and was met with same reply 'we cannot employ you with no experience' hence now a diving instructor in Egypt!
Iain Bouskill, Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt
Surely like all these things, it's a market. As the shortage gets worse, pay rates will start to rise, more people will get themselves trained, and numbers will increase to the correct level. Same thing happened with plumbers - too few, then too many, then about right.