At almost every turn, politicians, policy analysts, and industry stakeholders have praised the bipartisan infrastructure package that recently passed the U.S. Senate and is awaiting a vote in the lower chamber. There is a lot to like about the bill, from the great lengths it goes to fixing the 173,000 total miles of U.S. highways, federal roads, and bridges that need repair to how aggressively it tackles the U.S.’s alarmingly high road fatality rate. The legislation represents a textbook example of Democrats and Republicans putting partisan differences aside and coming together for the common good.
However, even the best bills have their share of critics, and this one is no exception. A handful of backseat quarterbacks have bristled at some provisions that aim to bolster diversity and inclusion in the workplace. These fault finders claim that these so-called “partisan giveaways” have nothing to do with transportation and should not be in the final package. They could not be more wrong. Diversity and infrastructure are and always will be intertwined, and the U.S. will never fix its transportation problems if it does not first fix the industry’s homogeneity problem.
By now, it is not a secret that American is in the middle of a supply chain crisis. All across the country, U.S. citizens are not receiving the products they need on time, from the gas they need in their cars to the produce they need on their grocery store shelves. According to an August Gallup survey, shortages have prevented 60-percent of U.S. adults from receiving a product they wanted in the past two months, while 57 percent of Americans have experienced significant delays in receiving their goods.
In a recent CNBC interview, Patrick De Haan, the head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, argued that the limited supply of truck drivers is the culprit of these rampant delays. He is right. The industry has faced a significant labor shortage for years, and it is getting worse, not better. The most recent data, which was calculated before the COVID-19 pandemic, indicated that the sector is short over 50,000 drivers. Given how many truck driver training schools and DMVs were closed for large portions of last year, there is no telling how much lower that number is now.
Analysts have provided many theories as to why this truck driver labor shortage persists, from the workforce’s age to the drivers’ compensation. While all these suggestions have validity, surveys conducted by Woman In Trucking, a nonprofit organization that promotes the employment of women in the trucking industry, suggest one of the root causes of this problem is even more intuitive: the sector is overwhelmingly dominated by one gender.
WIT partnered with FreightWaves, a supply chain logistics company, on a survey to determine women’s participation in the industry and found that they comprise a paltry 10 percent of all road drivers. Those numbers track closely with recent Department of Labor data, which indicates that females represent under 8 percent of all drivers, sales workers, and truck drivers. When the industry is effectively of interest to only half the population, it is no wonder there are labor shortages.
By comparison, women currently compose roughly 30-percent of the science, technology, engineering, and math workforce. By and large, everyone agrees that the government has played a key and critical role in changing the course of this STEM trajectory. However, the labor shortages currently present in the transportation industry are just as concerning for the U.S. economy and the health and well-being of the American public, so Washington has every reason and incentive to work towards reversing it.
That is exactly what the bipartisan congressional negotiators did when crafting this bipartisan infrastructure package. Specifically, their legislation contains language establishing a transportation workforce outreach program to encourage more women to consider trucking, aviation, rail, and maritime careers. It also directs the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to establish and facilitate a Women of Trucking Advisory Board promoting organizations and programs that provide education, training, mentorship, or outreach to women in the trucking industry.
These provisions are critical, because according to a 2017 WIT survey of drivers, an alarming 83 percent of females in the sector were recruited by a family or friend, meaning that most women are unaware of the benefits of entering the industry. Word of mouth, while effective, is one of the slowest drivers of industry growth. The country can no longer afford to rely on the recruitment efforts of other industry professionals to fill these driving jobs. It is the federal government — not employees’ — job to protect the U.S. supply chain, and this new government outreach program and promotion of industry advocacy organizations will do that by educating thousands of women about the benefits of beginning a career as a driver.
The House of Representatives should ignore critics’ unfair characterizations of these diversity provisions and recognize the important role they will play in fixing the country’s concerning and growing transportation and infrastructure problems. They need to move full speed ahead in passing this language so that the American people can finally begin receiving the goods they need as quickly, efficiently, and consistently as possible.
Ellen Voie is the founder, president, and CEO of Women In Trucking (WIT), a nonprofit organization formed in 2007 to promote the employment of women in the trucking industry, to remove obstacles that might keep them from succeeding.