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Trucking works to expand diversity, partly due to a nationwide shortage of drivers

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The billion-dollar trucking industry is changing, and with that comes a shift - pun intended - in who's behind the wheel. More women LGBTQ+ people are buckling up as the industry works to solve a driver shortage. Jacob Martin of member station WKYU (ph) in Bowling Green, Ky., reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE STARTING)

JACOB MARTIN, BYLINE: Idella Hansen is a long-haul trucker with over 50 years of experience.

IDELLA HANSEN: I'm 73 and fast approaching 74. And, yes, sir, I've been doing it since I was 18 in some form or fashion.

MARTIN: She's raised a family while pulling tractor-trailers across the country and has been around long enough to see important changes in the people who make up the long-haul truck driving community.

HANSEN: I am seeing it in the truck stop. Day after day after day, I'm seeing more ladies at the fuel island. I'm seeing more ladies dropping and hooking. And it's not just ladies. I'm seeing people of color, of different nationalities.

MARTIN: Minorities account for 42% of truck drivers, according to industry data. But 90% are still men. And the industry is getting older. The average trucker is 46 years old, amidst a growing shortage of roughly 80,000 drivers. So trucker recruitment is diversifying to get drivers behind the wheel. For Hansen, it doesn't matter what race, gender or orientation you are, as long as you can get the job done.

HANSEN: So you're seeing a lot of the gay community, and rightly so. They should be out there. If they can do the job, I don't care. They should have the opportunity.

MARTIN: Bobby Coffey-Loy agrees. He's the founder of the LGBTQ+ Truckers Network based in Bowling Green, Ky. His organization started as a way to represent truckers who didn't identify as straight but also to show there's money to be made in trucking.

BOBBY COFFEY-LOY: It's trying to bridge the gap between the regular LGBTQ community and trucking community, letting them realize that there is drivers out here, that it's a good option for a job and paying for surgeries and whatever, you know, your personal goal is.

MARTIN: The nonprofit now screens trucking companies to make sure they're LGBTQ friendly. They check whether companies support LGBTQ drivers or if their health insurance covers things like trans health care.

COFFEY-LOY: Companies is where I see the biggest progress at this point. There're so many companies that have opened up.

MARTIN: There are no official statistics on how many LGBTQ people are in trucking today. But Coffey-Loy's group has several thousand members. He says queer and trans drivers have always been a part of life on the road. One of them is Roni Hazel Sherman.

RONI HAZEL SHERMAN: I was always interested in driving something from little. My uncles and my father in my early life all drove trucks. But I got that bug from them, I guess.

MARTIN: She started as a long-haul driver in 1972 after serving in the Vietnam War. Sherman is a transgender driver and transitioned while she was trucking.

SHERMAN: I've had a really neat career. I've been all 48 states, been through most of Canada. So the places where I'd go I'm familiar with, I don't have a problem. And they're places that I've gone to for years.

MARTIN: With more visibility and more acceptance from trucking companies now, Sherman says it should entice more LGBTQ individuals to look into a career in trucking.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Martin in Bowling Green, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.