How a day in a UPS big rig opened my mind to trucking

As a child, I dreamed of countless careers I could pursue as an adult. For a while I wanted to be a teacher, then a veterinarian, later a pop singer, and eventually the writer I became. But I recall, from a young passenger’s perspective, thinking that being a truck driver would be fun. I liked the idea of venturing out on the open road, looking down on all the other cars as you barreled past. I even liked the idea of truck stops, since the stores there tended to tout odd novelties, random souvenirs and a comprehensive collection of snacks.

But last week, as I was buckled in the passenger seat of an enormous feeder tractor (aka, a big rig), with two trailers attached to the back (making for a load of about two tons), I knew was out of my element. UPS arranged for my drive with driver Becky Ascencio, while I was interviewing the company for a story I was writing on the growing shortage of drivers, and how millennials could possibly fill the gap. Becky (I feel like I know her so well now that it would be weird to call her by her last name) is a 56-year-old female driver who just celebrated 30 years as a UPS driver. I met her at her base dock in Sylmar, California and signed on for a 12-hour shift that would take us up to Fresno for unloading and reloading, and then back down.

BEING ON THE ROAD CAN BE EXHAUSTING, BUT THE LOVE OF THE JOB MAKES IT WORTH IT

I didn’t really know what I was in for when I climbed the rather serious set of steps up to my seat in my boxy “browns” (company slang for the UPS uniform I was required to wear). Honestly, I was dreading the 12 hours on the road with only two 15 minute breaks and one half-hour lunch. “Aren’t there shorter shifts?” I whined. There are, but Becky is one of the few female feeder drivers in my area and she scarcely works less than 10 hours a shift. Though she did not disclose her pay, she makes the most you can as a UPS driver, paid an hourly wage and also provided full healthcare, a 401(k) plan and a pension. “I’m incredibly lucky,” she said. “I make great money, I work with wonderful people and sure it’s tough and exhausting, but I love my job.”

I instantly liked Becky. She patiently explained everything that went into operating the truck. She showed me how to lock and unlock dollies, hook up air tubes and check all the safety settings. And she was kind — repeatedly reminding me that we could take breaks whenever I wanted, that if I needed anything we would get it and erased my fears of being stranded post-shift at 3AM in the industrial city of Bell with no access to a Lyft or Uber. “I’m taking you to a well-lit area and I’m going to wait with you to make sure they come,” she said, without my even asking. “And if they don’t show, I’m driving you home.”

‘YOU NEED A GOOD CHIROPRACTOR TO DO THIS JOB’

So there we were, going 55 mph max and feeling every foot traveled like a sucker punch in the tailbone. “I always say you need a good chiropractor to do this job,” Becky said with a laugh as I tried and failed to hide my discomfort. “I’ll get used to it,” I said meekly, and surprisingly, I did. Though I can’t say I was ever quite prepared for the sensation of backing into a dock no matter how much Becky warned me. It essentially feels like you’re getting into a minor collision every time.

“Yeah, it’s actually easier to back into a dock with a stick shift,” Becky said. “These automatics are tougher.” I gaped at the thought of driving this thing manually. “These are a much smoother drive though generally. Nothing like the tractor stalling on you when you’re going uphill.”

YOU’RE ALONE ON THE ROAD, BUT NEVER FAR FROM HELP

“Has that ever happened to you?” I asked. “Oh sure, but you just don’t panic. I called my supervisor and they calmly walked me through it and it was fine. That’s the thing, you just have to stay calm and it will all work out.”

Becky also suggested that even though she’s on the road alone for long periods of time, she never really feels alone. Not only is her tractor synced to GPS tracking, she’s got local contacts she can reach out to anytime. Plus, she has great friends in other docks. When we unloaded in Fresno, we took a 9PM lunch break in the warehouse and Becky knew just about everybody there — all men, by the way (not a big surprise when you consider that only 7 percent of truck drivers are women).

JUST ONE OF THE GUYS?

Initially I was self-conscious in the company of these guys. I had a certain impression of male truck drivers as being less than welcoming to women, and maybe even lewd. But all the men I met (who didn’t know I was a journalist until we left, and just assumed I was in training) were polite and professional. They also seemed to be looking out for all their colleagues, alerting Becky about road closures ahead and any other potential obstacles.

According to Ellen Voie, CAE of the Women In Trucking Association, my experience as a woman meeting “nice, accommodating male drivers” isn’t uncommon, and she notes that with a highly reputable company like UPS, I probably got “the best of the best” in most aspects of my experience, but welcoming men aren’t a given in this industry.

“This is a male-dominated field and in any environment that is, there are those men who think that women shouldn’t be doing the job,” noted Voie. “But that thinking is more prevalent among the boomer generation, and these folks are retiring. I think with the millennial generation, that attitude will die out.”