When Alphonso Lewis got out of the military, he wanted to be a truck driver. He thought his time as an MP in the military would help open doors for him. But as a Black man, he found it wasn’t so easy.
“The first couple of times, it made me feel bad. I felt I was prepared, but I was turned away,” he said during a recent virtual panel discussion.
Eventually he landed at YRC, where he is still a professional truck driver for YRC Freight and is also an America’s Road Team Captain for the American Trucking Associations.
“I learned early on from talking to older drivers… how hard it was for a black man to get into the industry,” he recalls.
When he first started driving more than 25 years ago, he was shocked when a driver on the opposite side of a four-lane highway in Alabama threw out a hand gesture and shouted “White Knights.” That was a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan responsible for many bombings, church burnings, beatings, and murders of Blacks and Civil Rights workers during the 1960s.
He also soon realized that there were certain truck stops that African-American drivers wouldn’t go to, where rebel flags and other indicators told them they weren’t welcome.
“Even now you hear drivers talk, and they will tell you don’t go to this place or that place. It’s 2020, it shouldn’t be that way.”
Lewis said things have improved over the years. “I see more and more African-American drivers, more and more women drivers, on the road and coming through our terminals. I’m not saying we’re where we need to be, but it’s great seeing how things have improved.”
Whether you’re talking about race or ethnicity, gender or sexual identification, religion or age, having a diverse workforce is not only the right and moral thing to do, it’s also good business. A panel discussion during the American Trucking Associations’ virtual version of its annual Management Conference and Exhibition offered thoughts on how trucking companies can foster diversity and inclusion.
The panel was moderated by James Reed, president and CEO of USA Truck. Reed was joined by Lewis and by Cari Baylor, president of Baylor Trucking; John Esparza, president and CEO of the Texas Trucking Association; and John Stomps, president and CEO of Total Transportation MS.
“Diversity to us means looking past appearance into someone’s heart,” Baylor said.
Stomps echoed that. An Italian-American who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, he said, “I don’t care what color skin you are; I care about what’s in our heart, your mind and your soul.”
Reed recalled that when the George Floyd protests started bringing issues with institutional racism to the surface in June, he called a good friend, who is Black, for advice. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to think about this as a middle-aged white guy.’ And he said, ‘This is not a white issue, this is not a black issue. This is a human issue.’”
The Moral and Business Case for Diversity
Reed explained that for him, this is a very personal issue, as well as one that’s vital to his business. He did his senior thesis in college on an important Supreme Court case dealing with segregation, and that “really affected how I thought about the world.” His youngest child is adopted from Micronesia and he has several African-American in-laws and two granddaughters.
“In my work life, I’m a bit of a capitalist, and I believe … as a leader we have a huge responsibility to be fair and equitable,” Reed said.
At the same time, he said, there’s a business case for diversity. He cited a Boston Consulting Group study that found that companies that reported above-average diversity on their management teams also reported innovation revenue that was 19 percentage points higher than companies with below-average leadership diversity—45% of total revenue versus 26%. In addition, those companies reported EBIT margins that were 9 percentage points higher than those of companies with below-average diversity on their management teams.
And if you’re looking to recruit Millennials and Gen Zs, he said, the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey finds that these groups are determined to drive positive change in their communities and around the world, and view companies perceived to have diverse senior management teams more favorably.
Having a more diverse workforce leads to more perspectives and more possible solutions to challenges.
Baylor said diversity needs to include race and gender, as well as sexual identification and age. “Our management team ranges from age 25 to 60, and that brings such collaboration and great ideas,” she said. “You have to invite a Kramer to every meeting to have creativity,” she added, referring to the quirky character from the TV show Seinfeld. “You have to have that goofball whackadoodle idea to throw in the mix, someone from another department with a different perspective to question why.”
Don’t Get Left Behind
Things have changed, in the demographics and social norms of both the country and the trucking industry. The panel said that trucking companies that don’t change with it may be left behind.
Stomps recalled that when he started out in the business, Carter was president, and the trucking industry was very much a world of white males.
“That’s the way it was back then. African-Americans were moving into the industry at that time, but the only females you saw were in clerical type positions.” Deregulation in 1980, he said started forcing companies to become more competitive and find the best possible people, not just the best white men.
Stomps remembers in the early ‘90s, “a young lady, her name was Doris, came up and told me she wanted to learn how to drive. I had drivers that trained her and she went out and took the CDL. We had an ’87 cabover International, and she was about 5 foot 5 – her feet couldn’t touch the pedals.” They made alterations to the brake, clutch and accelerator pedals so she could drive. “She became one of our top drivers,” he said.
Baylor, who grew up in the family business, recalled the calendars that were prevalent in the shop when she was a child visiting her father and grandfather. “The way the women were portrayed in the calendars were… different than they would be portrayed today,” she said. “That doesn’t seem that long ago, that’s how women were represented. In my career, women can walk anywhere and be heard.”
Today, Reed said, some 38.75% of CDL holders are minorities and 6% are women, according to data compiled by the American Trucking Associations. Women in Trucking places the number of women drivers at closer to 10%.
At Total Transportation, Stomps said, women make up 23% of his executive team, “which is not enough, but we’re going in the right direction,” including an African-American woman who just joined the team.
Esparza pointed out that in Texas, whites today are actually a minority. The state's demographer predicts that Hispanics will be the state's largest population group by mid-2021, and New Mexico and California are seeing similar trends.
“Each state is starting to grow more and more in the complexity of ethnic backgrounds, and as companies, if we don’t identify with that, the companies that are more averse to change will have additional struggles ahead of them.”
6 Things Trucking Leaders Can Do to Foster Diversity and Inclusion
1. Listen and Communicate
“It’s important to listen,” Esparza said. “That’s one of the things I think we all can do a better job of doing, no matter what background you’re from. It will serve us well if we listen to the folks we are employing, the folks we live with.”
When tensions were high during the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, Baylor said, “we took walks with a lot of people and asked how it was affecting them, what ideas they wanted to see us implement to help create a safe environment of learning and growth. We did a lot of Facebook Lives with our drivers and heard from them what they were experiencing on the road, making sure all of their concerns were heard,” both from minorities and from drivers who were concerned about their safety if they got caught in a protest.
Reed suggested that if your leadership team is not sufficiently diverse, consider inviting representatives of minority groups to strategic decision-making meetings to help understand how issues affect everyone across the enterprise.
He also does regular Zoom calls to find out what it’s like to be a minority at USA Truck. He learned of a driver who would not let a minority person unload his truck. A West Coast employee who describes himself as of Middle Eastern descent said he couldn’t find a place to get his hair cut when visiting headquarters in Van Buren, Arkansas. Someone in the finance group got pulled over because he was in a rental car and questioned about the car ownership.
“There are real issues in our country, so let’s not be Pollyanna-ish about it,” Reed said.
“If we love one another, if we spent more time caring about everyone’s opinion, you’ve provided a safe environment for sharing, and you’re finding out more about your company,” said Esparza. “The fabric of your company is your people. If we’re providing a safe environment to have those conversations, there’s going to be different perspectives.”
Different perspectives also means some of those conversations are not going to be easy.
More than one panelist talked about having to respond to employees who have religious objections to LGBTQ or transgender people. Stomps said, “I tell them it all comes down to respect. Every individual deserves respect. I may not agree with your lifestyle, but I respect you and expect you to respect me.”
2. Go beyond lip service
The panelists stressed that while listening is important, it’s not enough if you don’t follow up and address their concerns.
In the Deloitte study, both millennials and Gen Z respondents believed most business leaders are not truly committed to creating inclusive cultures. Roughly two-thirds of respondents from both generations believe too many leaders simply pay “lip service” to diversity and inclusion.
Esparza said, “If you’ve got someone that’s a problem, who’s acidic, who is causing other people anxiety and strife, if you don’t address that, it becomes a reflection on you as a leader. How we react when problems are brought to our doorstep says more about who we are than what we say” about diversity publicly.
Reed agreed. “If you don’t handle that, you can breed a culture of cynicism.”
At Total Transportation, Stomps said, they got involved heavily with the Women in Trucking Association to learn more about how to recruit and support women. Quarterly group discussions with drivers help determine what challenges they face. Many women, he said, won’t stay the night at the same truckstop where they get their meals, because they don’t want to be targeted by someone who sees them going back to their truck. “We have 911 apps for our female drivers, and we stay in touch with them to make sure they’re safe.” Vehicle spec’ing has come a long way since he had to put blocks on the pedals for Doris. Automated transmissions are easier not only for women but for everyone to drive.
3. Celebrate diversity and raise awareness
June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month (often called simply Pride Month), established to recognize the impact that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals have had on the world.
Baylor was approached by the company’s Millennial Team in mid-March about what the company was doing to recognize Pride Month. Despite being in the middle of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, the company took action becuase "it’s super important to them. Our director of operations is an openly gay man, and we went to him and asked him for his ideas. They came up with all types of creative ideas, and it helped with inclusion and morale and positivity.”
Reed said in addition to Pride month in June, there are other months where companies can celebrate and raise awareness of their diverse workforce. February is Black History Month. March is Women’s History Month. April is Celebrate Diversity Month. May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and also Jewish American Heritage Month. National Hispanic Heritage Month is Sept. 15-Oct. 15. November is Native American Heritage Month.
4. Give back to the community
Reed cited Citigroup Vice Chairman Ray McGuire, who is Black, who has implored corporate leaders to take real steps to combat systemic racism following the death of George Floyd.
“We [in corporate America] need to have the conviction to change the mindset,” he said, arguing that charitable giving and statements alone “do not begin to get to the systemic racism… We need to do whatever we can and commit every resource that we have ... to combat this 400 years of systemic racism across every one of the important areas: education, economics, criminal injustice and health care.”
Reed suggested trucking companies heed McGuire’s call to commit resources. For example, he said, companies could give employees paid time off for volunteer work to do things such as help an underserved school district. Or you might donate 10 hours of IT resources a month to a minority-owned business in your community.
5. Measure to manage
Reed said it’s important to know where you are currently when it comes to diversity and set goals for where you want to be and how to get there.
“If you don’t know the percentages at your company, find out. Ours is 9.12% women. Minorities are 79%, twice the industry average. Amongst my leadership, only 13% are minorities – we have to do a better job.”
For instance, he said USA Truck recently held unconscious bias training for employees.
The panelists said building a truly diverse workforce involves reaching out beyond what may be your traditional hiring methods. The recommended getting involved in organizations where you can interact with the diverse groups you want to recruit, such as Women in Trucking or historically black universities and colleges in your area. At Total Transportation, Stomps said, “we call on about four universities, two are African American universities in Mississippi. You’ve got to get involved.”