Interview: Kellylynn McLaughlin with Women in Trucking

Photograph of Red truck on highway in Colorado at autumn, USA. Mount Sopris landscape.

Kellylynn McLaughlin is a driver ambassador for Women In Trucking Association, Professional over-the-road CMV driver and Training engineer for Schneider.

Hi Kellylynn! Where are you right now?

I’m in Santa Fe right now. I drive out of Dallas. I spend the majority of my off time in Oklahoma, but about once a month I come up here. My mom is in Santa Fe.

How long have you been working in the trucking industry?

Only five years. I got my CDL when I was fifty. I did not come from a trucking family. I didn’t even know I wanted to be in the trucking industry. I was a volunteer parent, director of logistics for a Midwestern high school marching band.

For the marching band we had a bunch of trailers, and tons of equipment. We had to rent a tractor to pull our giant trailer, and at first I thought of it as a personal challenge because I thought of it as something I could never do. 

And there was a dad volunteering as well who used to work as a truck driver. I rode with him one day, and I said, ‘Wow this is really cool I wish I could do it,’ and he said something like ‘Oh, you could do it.’ 

And I looked at him and I said “I don’t know that I could.” But he said, “Yeah, you could. You go get a learners permit just like you do for a regular car, you go get trained, and then you take a test. It’s just the same thing except it’s a different kind of vehicle.” 

And I thought about it and I decided it was something that I wanted to try and accomplish and check off in my life. And then, in the process of doing that I found out how much I really enjoyed it. 

I really started to appreciate the risk and the power of those units, and that I just needed to be better trained. So I went to Schneider to get more experience and better training. And in the process of doing that I learned a bit more about the lifestyle of drivers, and how few women were actually in this industry.

I felt like drivers needed a voice at the decision making table, and I wanted to be one of those people while I was still in the industry. To have conversations with decision makers that made the decisions that affected us, the drivers. Because even though there were so many things in the industry I liked, there was definitely room for improvement.

What were your expectations of the trucking industry when you started and were those expectations correct?

When I first got into it, I thought it would just be something fun and something new. It was a personal challenge for me, and as I was fulfilling that then I learned about all these other things. 

I learned about how important the industry is to our country’s circulatory system. Our country just cannot run without the freight movement industry. And then, I also learned about some of the struggles of living as a trucker where you spend your life on the road. And I also learned how hard it was to stay healthy on the road. 

And, I also learned about the magical places in our country. How beautiful it was to drive through the mountains with a little bit of fog as the sun’s coming up. And I met so many interesting people from all walks of life. 

After working in the trucking industry, I have a much better understanding of what happens behind the scenes of our country to keep it running. For instance, about your recycling bin that you put out. What happens to that? Where does it go? Who touches it? I get to see all of that, and it’s just fascinating. 

One of the stories that I tell people sometimes is that one day I went to a metal recycling place to pick up a load. What they did is that they had a giant grinder, like a gigantic Vitamix. They put all the metal bits, old cars and stuff in the grinder. And the grinder spits out these tiny metal chips onto a conveyor belt. 

And I had to back my truck up to the conveyor belt and they dumped all the metal chips onto the floor of my trailer. And I drove down to the Mexican border with these metal chips, wondering what’s going to happen to them. 

I handed my trailer off to a driver in Mexico who took my trailer across the border. And at the same time, coming across from the same company, are the metal frames that go on vehicles. So these metal chips from old cars were recycled into new car frames. We’ve come full circle, right? 

I just get to see all these behind the scenes activities and it’s cool. I think it’s great. And I’m just constantly amazed at all these businesses there are out there that I never even knew about until I got into this industry.

What advice would you give to women who are just starting in the industry?

I would tell them to do their homework. Talk to different drivers, talk to different carriers, really do their research when it comes to training. Because not all training environments are the same. I also encourage people to get scholarships or grants to pay for their CDL training because it gives them choices later when they decide to go to work. 

There are a lot of carriers out there who will pay for your training but then you’re indebted to them for a period of time. You may not like their training conditions, or their working conditions, or the equipment. Or you might even dislike the customers. 

So the more choice you have the better fit you can find. Employer-employee relationships are always a two way street.You have to find an employer that has your same values and that you’re going to feel comfortable working with. 

The other thing is that I would suggest they make connections with organizations such as the  Women In Trucking Association. We have members willing to share their expertise and their experience from all different branches of the industry. Not just from driving, but from training, regulatory,  administration, and carriers. You name it and there are members in our organization that have experience in those fields. 

Personally, I read industry journals and I am involved with my local trucking organizations and agencies that are in the transportation industry. So I stay abreast of what’s happening even outside of the driving part of my job.

Have you seen an increase in women truckers during your time working in the industry?

I’ve only been in it for five years and there are women that have been driving for twenty or thirty years. So the changes that I’ve seen have probably not been as dramatic as the changes that they have seen. 

And those women that did it twenty and thirty years ago, those are the real trailblazers. Really strong, independent, and adventurous women. What I’ve seen in the last five years is that the number of women that I see out on the road has probably doubled. 

I used to only see women every once in a while. And whenever I’d pull into a station I’d just see all the heads turn, as if they were thinking, “Oh something different drove into the truck stop, that doesn’t look like the rest of us.” And I don’t get that so much anymore, so that’s a good thing. 

I think there are more women out there. When Women In Trucking was formed, about three percent of drivers were female and now the industry average is about ten percent women, so that has really significantly increased. 

I believe COVID has taken a toll on the number of women that are out there driving because it’s just harder now. It’s not as safe to be out there moving around. And the kids are at home learning instead of in school. So I think there are more women having to stay home because of that. 

Do you have any specific safety concerns as a woman? And how do you address them when you’re on the road?

Yes I do have safety concerns as a woman, but there also the same safety concerns for men too. They’re just safety concerns in general. 

One way I address my safety is that I do a lot of trip planning. I spend a lot of time thinking about: What does my load load like? What does the weather look like? What are the roads I’m going to be travelling on? What time of day am I going to be doing it? What are my hours of service? How much time do I have to work with? What truck stops are around where I’m planning on stopping? Are they going to be full? Do I need to reserve a spot? Can I even reserve a spot? 

I spend a lot of time thinking about that. When I wake up in the morning I’m thinking about where I’m going to sleep. And where I’m going to sleep is important, not only for safety but to have access to things like food, a shower, a toilet. 

We have to pay for showers as drivers. If you have some sort of member card with a truck stop, sometimes if you get a certain amount of fuel they’ll give you a free shower. Reserved parking  we have to pay for, but again, if you have a membership with a parking chain that has reserve parking then if you have enough points you could use your points to pay for your parking. But not all drivers have that. 

Trip planning is number one. And number two is being aware of your surroundings. I try and pick places that are well lit, that have a good surface, and where there’s other drivers around because we have a tendency to look out for each other. 

I try not to walk with anything in my hands. You know, the simple things you would do if you were going to the mall at night. You don’t walk with your hands full, you pay attention. I carry high visibility gear that I have to wear at my customers, and I often choose to wear it at night when I’m going in and out of truck stops. 

I usually carry a flashlight as well. And I wear my steel toed boots because if, you know, a stray dog or someone comes and bothers me at least I can give them a swift kick with the steel toes, right?

I have done self defence classes, but I have never ever been in a situation where that’s what I needed. What I needed was prior planning and a level head. I had a police officer once tell me that the best self defense tool that we had these days was our cellphone. Not only can we use it to call for help, but if we’re in a situation where someone’s trying to grab us or something, you can take it and jam it into their throat. And if you take away their air they’re probably not going to be trying to get you anymore. 

So he said, “Just use your cellphone, your cellphone is your best self defence tool.” And if I really thought that I was unsafe doing this job I wouldn’t be doing it. I wouldn’t be risking my life to be a truck driver if I really thought it was unsafe. 

My biggest safety risk is how the four wheel passenger vehicles drive around me. I’m often eighty thousand pounds, that’s my max. It takes me a long time to slow down and to speed up, and drivers are often risky and disrespectful around commercial motor vehicles.  

So that’s what you’d like to see the industry change. Are there any other changes you would like to see in the future?

Right now we have a parking and infrastructure issue. There are more trucks on the road then there ever have been, but our industry and our infrastructure have not kept up with that. 

Oftentimes when we get to customers for planning or zoning purposes they haven’t planned in a place for us to take our breaks or to spend the night. Or to do the things that we need to do to just live. And out on the highways there are not enough rest areas that can accommodate us. 

And the truck stops, there’s just not enough of them and they’re just not big enough. So parking is a huge issue for drivers right now. We’re all talking about it. It’s one of the first things a driver will tell you about trying to run their load, where am I going to stop? We’re big, where are we going to do that? Some states are addressing that and making some progress and others maybe not so much, but it is nationwide.

And I would definitely like to see drivers have access to hygiene facilities at our customers, shippers, and receivers. Right now, I might drive six to eight hours to a customer, and be at that customer for one to three hours, sometimes longer. And the majority of the customers that I go to do not allow me to have access to a toilet. 

Instead, it might be a port-a-potty and it might or might not have a roof. I have this one customer lately, and they have a multi-million dollar facility. They don’t let us inside and I understand that it’s for their security reasons. But they could have added a bathroom and break room for drivers that’s heated, cooled, and plumbed.

But instead they have two port-a-potties for all the drivers. They must have hundreds that come every day. And the last time I was there the roof of the port-a-potty was broken and there was snow and dirt inside. That’s not unusual and it needs to not be the norm. We need to have access to hygiene facilities at our shippers and receivers.

That must be a big challenge for truckers. Would you say that’s the biggest challenge of working as a truck driver?

I think the biggest challenge is probably dealing with passenger vehicles, honestly. They’re just so unpredictable and unsafe, and distracted, and disrespectful. Or maybe it’s not even disrespect, some of them are just risky. And I just don’t think they understand how much space we need and how to drive safely around us. 

And maybe they don’t have the respect. Unfortunately, when I came into this industry as a driver people always asked me, “Why would you want to do that?” As if there’s something wrong with it. Like it’s unsavoury or not a valued profession. 

I don’t even think it’s viewed as a profession for a lot of people, and it truly is. We are highly skilled safety professionals that are driving these massive vehicles and it is a profession. I get tired of answering some of those questions. But people are just uninformed about how important this industry is, how large it is. 

You name any job in our country and it’s contained within the trucking industry. We even have healthcare professionals that work within our industry; engineers, IT, technicians, training, the people that develop training manuals, marketing, PR, movies. It’s all in this industry and a lot of people don’t really realize all the opportunities there are here.

What is the best part of working as a truck driver?

I think it’s going down the road just solving problems. I love going down the road and figuring out how I am going to get this big box in that spot. I just love it, I really do. 

And the people that I’ve met, I probably wouldn’t have met anywhere else except for on the road. So I really haven’t lost any love for it. Just trying to make it a better place before I move on.

Is there anything else you want women truckers to know?

Just that there’s a lot of opportunity for women in this industry. We just need to think outside the box. And joining the industry is probably one of the best things that I’ve done, besides having kids.

The more we can share the message that there’s opportunity here, that it’s a great place to develop professionally, the better. That’s why I’m a member of the Women In Trucking Association and I’m their ambassador, we should tell everybody.

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