Trucking is getting more diverse, partly due to a nationwide shortage of drivers
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The billion-dollar trucking industry is changing and - pun alert here - with it, a shift in who's behind the wheel. As Jacob Martin of member station WKYU (ph) in Bowling Green, Ky. reports, women and people who are LGBTQ+ are buckling up as the industry works to solve a driver shortage.
(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, a lot of transgenders.
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 straights 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EAST BOUND AND DOWN")
JERRY REED: (Singing) East bound and down, loaded up and trucking. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.