Corrina Riley has been driving a truck for two decades and says she loves her big rig almost as much as her two children.
“The men know they don’t stand a chance with me, because they know how much I love my truck,” she said.
Queensland-based Ms Riley drives a 2012 Peterbilt 388, which she has nicknamed “Salacious Pete” and is currently doing the berry season, running from Caboolture into the markets.
“I love everything about it. I love the big flash, just being out there, being out on the road,” she said.
“I like the hard work about it … it’s very challenging and tiring most of the time, but someone’s got to do it.”
Even when schools were closed during the COVID pandemic, Ms Riley continued to transport freight and brought her 11-year-old son along with her.
“For three to four months, I home-schooled him in the truck,” she said.
“It’s my job, so you’ve got to find a way to work and be a mum.”
It comes as trucking companies look to recruit mothers who may have the opportunity to transport freight between school hours or on overnight shifts, to help combat driver shortages and increasing freight demand.
Ms Riley said the industry’s push toward creating a work-life balance for mothers has allowed her to develop her own career.
“I’ve been very fortunate with a few companies who let me drop off my son at before-school care and then go to work,” she said.
“So they were really lenient, and they knew I had to pick my child up from school, so we need a lot, a lot more of that.”
South-East Queensland Hauliers deputy managing director Nathan Craner said his company was trying to adapt its structure and recruitment strategy to modern conditions.
“We’re looking at how else we can attract people into this industry,” he said.
“One of them, for example, is looking at female drivers because there’s half the market there that we’re not tapping into and that we’re not advertising exceptionally well to.”
Mr Craner said the company was offering more flexible hours for women who potentially have family commitments in the mornings and afternoons, like school pick-up and drop-off.
“So we’re opening up opportunities for part-time shifts or casual work for female drivers,” he said.
“Whilst it’s a short-term band-aid [for supply chain issues], that’s potentially a long-term entry, so that once that family grows up, and those children become adults, you might have a female driver that’s looking for a full-time position.”
Followmont Transport CEO Mark Tobin said his company was also trying to recruit women in regional areas, where they were experiencing more acute shortages.
“What we’re looking at is how do you get mums that would be at home, who can still work five to six hours a day, pick the kids up, and give them that work-life balance,” he said.
Mr Tobin said it was also important to ensure facilities, like bathrooms and rest-stops along the highway network, were updated so that workers felt comfortable.
Eliminating gender bias
Only 4 per cent of drivers in Australia are female, and Ms Riley said attracting more women to the industry was also going to require a shift in attitudes.
“I think the gender bias is the worst. Back when I first started in 2004, it wasn’t as prominent … these days, with the younger generation, it’s terrible out there,” she said.
“Especially around the towns, that’s where it’s the worst.”
Ms Riley, who is a board director for Women in Trucking Australia, said one way to get more women on the roads was through training and mentorship programs.
“There are a lot of bigger companies doing female-only driver training, which is really good because the more women in the industry, the less gender bias there will be.
“And the less gender bias there is, the more women there will be.”
Jade Harney, 22, started her career two years ago when she excelled in an internship program at Followmont.
“Getting more women involved would be awesome, through internships or programs like that, getting more girls involved would be really good,” she said.
“I started as a forklift driver, I went onto my [heavy vehicle] licence, and I hope to go further. There’s a lot of opportunity in transport.
“If you don’t think you can do it, like I thought I couldn’t do it: do it, because you can absolutely do it.”
A delay in supply chains
Mr Tobin said the trucking industry was struggling to manage the ever-growing volume of freight tasks, which was predicted to increase by 25 per cent in the next decade.
“The freight task is getting to the point where we can’t keep up – we just do not have enough people in the industry to support what the freight task is in Australia,” he said.
“There’s going to be a delay in supply chains. The shelves are going to be affected come Christmas.
“It will have a flow-on effect in terms of the cost to consumers and [delivery] delays. You’ll go to the supermarket and what you want won’t be there.”
Mr Craner said between 10 to 20 per cent of his fleet was absent on any given day due to sickness and COVID disruptions.
“It’s impacting business because we’ve got plenty of opportunities, whereby customers are saying ‘we have the work and we want to trust you with the business’, and our delay is actually accepting that work because of the driver shortage,” he said.
Driver-trainer Dan Walter said the shortage also puts more pressure on current drivers.
“We’re working longer hours, spending less time at home and more time at work,” he said.
Mr Craner said the COVID pandemic made the struggle of recruiting and retaining drivers worse.
“The challenge to get drivers on board is just higher and higher,” he said.
“The overall time to recruit and then hire and onboard a driver is exceptionally longer than it used to be.”
Mr Craner said the problem partly stemmed from changes in the cultural landscape of truck driving.
“Over time … we’re noticing more and more people are entering as a professional driver as potentially a second or third career change,” he said.
“Whereas, historically, they were brought up in the truck as a child, observing their parent as a professional operator, and that became a life-long career.”
Mr Tobin said it has resulted in an ageing workforce, with the average driver pushing 60 years old.
“We’re not seeing the youth come through,” he said.
“We just don’t have young people coming through the [training] schools, from the grassroots, into the industry.”
Ms Riley’s advice to other women considering a career in trucking: “One hundred per cent go for it. It’s the best job in the world – you will not regret it.”