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The trucking industry is changing. Massive driver shortages are forcing trucking companies to think differently about who can drive big rigs. In the second of two stories, Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports on how the industry is trying to recruit more women and younger people.
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FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: On a packed gravel lot near a sprawling truck stop in southwest Iowa, Ellie O'Daire has found a place to park her truck for the night. At 29, she's more than a quarter-century younger than the average truck driver, who's 55. She's also part of a transformation in trucking.
ELLIE O'DAIRE: This industry needs people that can adapt to the way it's changing because this industry is changing very rapidly. And it's going to change a lot from where it is right now over the next few years.
MORRIS: O'Daire is a transgender woman. She likes the solitude, loves the constant travel and embraces the evolving technology of trucking.
O'DAIRE: I got into it in the most millennial way possible. I was playing too many video games.
MORRIS: A trucking game left her with questions about real-life trucking, which eventually led O'Daire to a recruiter for Wilson Logistics in Springfield, Mo., where Darrel Wilson is president and CEO.
DARREL WILSON: Twenty years ago, 25 years ago, for training somebody, we'd look for good ole farm boy, right? And he drove tractors. He drove straight trucks. He came in. We gave him a little training. He went and made a trip or two with another driver, and he was off on his own. It was OK.
MORRIS: But that was then. Now the trucking industry's short about 60,000 drivers, a number that could double in 10 years as baby boomers retire. So companies like Wilson's are developing alluring websites and have recruiters working the phones all day long, cajoling prospective employees to sign on. Like many others, Wilson provides free training to new hires like Angela Thornton.
ANGELA THORNTON: So more women are coming into the fill, more diverse population. So it's starting to become more flexible and more welcoming.
MORRIS: Women alone could fix the driver shortage. They now represent only 8 percent of long-haul drivers. And there are reasons for that. Lots of truckers spend days, sometimes weeks on the road, sleeping in their trucks, tethered to truck stops for food and restrooms. Thornton says many women are wary of truck stops.
THORNTON: So there's the safety concerns, especially if you're a solo female driver. A lot of women are also still raising their families, so they need to be home more.
MORRIS: Safety is the biggest concern women drivers have, according to Ellen Voie, president of the group Women in Trucking.
ELLEN VOIE: We work with the truck stops on lighting and fencing and reporting to them truck stops that are not safe.
MORRIS: Voie says some trucking companies are altering routes to get drivers home more frequently and even springing for hotel rooms instead of expecting drivers to sleep in their trucks. She says it's worth it. Her data show that women drivers stay with their companies longer and drive more miles. And since most drivers get paid primarily by the mile, women often make more money than men. Voie says the percentage of women truck drivers has roughly doubled in the last decade.
VOIE: I think you're going to see the numbers increase dramatically in the next five years.
MORRIS: The long-haul trucking industry also wants a chance to hire people right out of high school. Companies are backing a plan to ease federal restrictions and allow 18-year-olds to drive semis across state lines.
Meantime, technology is making trucks safer and easier to drive. New ones are increasingly automated. Some don't require shifting. Onboard systems watch the lanes and can even apply the brakes. Technology also plays a big brother role, allowing companies to closely monitor their drivers' schedules. CEO Darrel Wilson says some older veteran drivers chafe at the new safety features and restrictions. He needs drivers who embrace them, like Ellie O'Daire
WILSON: She buys into our safety technology, doesn't buck it. She's happy to drive that 58-to-60 mile an hour and get good fuel economy and be safe. And so yes, I think as technology changes, the folks that it appeals to change, and our face changes.
MORRIS: O'Daire figures that autonomous trucks will eventually ease the driver shortage. Though, with her gaming skills, she sees a possible job for herself driving several trucks at a time remotely, video game style. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.