Since Toni Bailey got behind the wheel of her first trash truck in 2004, she’s been around the block and back– both literally and figuratively. Currently the solid waste project manager for Hillsborough County, Fla., she’s seen a lot change for women over time, having operated almost every type of trash truck and route; stepping into multiple dispatcher, supervisory, and management positions; then sliding back into the drivers’ seat for a while.
Looking back, then forward, she says, “It’s become a much more appealing industry for women. Truck designs are better. The way routes are set up is better. And management is much better because the versatility inside management has changed. We see a lot of female supervisors, which impacts us greatly because this is a relatable person,” Bailey says.
She first came in as a temp helper for Waste Management earning $39 a day while pushing to prove she had the stamina to do trash routes. She spent morning till evening in the cold, and sometimes rain, jumping on and off a non-automated rear loader, lifting and dumping roughly 12 to 20 tons a day.
“I took the opportunity because I was 25 and had a daughter and needed to work. But those three [trial] weeks were tough. Every bone and muscle in my body hurt. I was on the verge of giving up but didn’t.”
Her persistence paid off. She was hired on to drive a rear loader, advancing quickly to higher-earning driver jobs and bringing in annual income of $45,000 before the end of that first year.
But Bailey’s days began at 4 a.m., a schedule that no longer worked for her once her daughter was in first grade; she needed to take her to school. She transitioned to dispatch and eventually to other operational roles to balance work and family life.
When new automated front loaders came to Hillsborough County in 2013, she wanted to get a feel for how they ran and worked. So she went back to her roots, driving.
They were right-hand-side drive trucks with low, hard plywood fold up seats. Women without the height had to stand to see over the steering wheel and through the side mirrors.
She spoke up, and Waste Management made accommodations for her, then other women, moving the joystick (that controlled the lift arm) from the center console to the driver’s side. This tweak elevated the seat about a foot, taking care of the visibility problems, providing more control, and more comfort.
The trucking industry at large has made advances to better accommodate women and older workers.
The first is improved ergonomics—various interior adaptations like the kind Bailey talks about, making it easier for women to reach the pedals and see over the hood.
Further, manufacturers have added technology to remove much of the need for brawn, from hydraulic hoods to power steering and brakes, says Ellen Voie, president/CEO, Women In Trucking Association.
“But the waste industry is further ahead (in my opinion) than many other industries in using technology in trucks to make the job less physically demanding, while also attracting younger drivers who are more comfortable with the technology,” Voie says.
The evolution from manual to automated collections is what has most attracted more women trash truck drivers in the opinion of Ken Bevis, senior district manager for Waste Management, servicing Hillsborough County. Drivers no longer get out of the truck to lift the cans; the technology does it. These upgraded capabilities hugely decrease physical demand as the typical residential trash load is 30 to 50 pounds; Hillsborough County drivers do 500 to 600 homes per route.
Bevis has been in the waste industry for 33 years and has seen few women come into trucking until recently. He’s hired eight women haulers for Hillsborough County alone in the past year, after a 10-year roll where only a total of two came on board.
He attributes the uptick largely to the improvements in automated truck design.
“It’s a better, more viable job today. But what else has helped is that we do active outreach to women through targeted recruitment activities, social media ad campaigns, and other programs so they become more aware of the opportunities to drive and thrive in our industry.”
Improved hours are a big draw too, he says.
Hillsborough includes route time deadlines in its contracts; the work still gets done because of more efficient, smaller routes. Women like that they can be home when their kids get back from school; do their homework with them; get dinner on the table; and make it to their ballgames and other activities. That’s actually what Sharon Mann, general manager at Republic Services in Baton Rouge, LA hears women say they like most.
Her division runs 142 routes a day and has 65 female drivers, a bit unusual considering that roughly 7 percent of the folks doing this job are women, by industry accounts.
It wasn’t always easy to find drivers, much less women, but that has changed, at least where Mann works.
The turnaround began just over 15 years ago, after she got creative on the recruitment front.
“I was at my son’s school one day waiting in the carpool line and got out and started handing my cards out to bus drivers in the parking lot.
A lot of them were women, and of course they had their commercial driver’s license. They understand the dynamics of how to operate trucks and were operating in the same neighborhoods where we serve residential customers. They came and applied. We hired a few and, ever since, these women recruit each other,” Mann says.
Dedra McKinley drives for Republic. A former over-the-road driver, mother, and grandmother, she’s happy her long-haul days are over and that she can be home more with her family.
A bonus is she was able to put her kids through college on her salary.
As a driving instructor, she prepares both women and men to go out on routes by themselves.
“When women in particular get in the truck for the first time, they often ask me how and why do you do this? My job is to help them feel comfortable,” McKinley says.
Some aren’t so sure about the joystick. Not nearly as many of them as the men she trains are big on video games, so this control gadget is foreign to them. But more so the mammoth truck can be intimidating at first.
“It looks scary. But soon they see it’s not. Within about 60 days they are ready to go out and serve customers and be safe,” McKinley says.
She started out with the same uneasiness as the women she acclimates. Fast forwarding several years she says:
“This job took the fear out of me. You just have to get used to the truck and learn a new industry. Doing it every day made me more comfortable. Now you can put me in a front loader or any truck. And I’m ready to go.”