When thinking of waste management collection as a career, many people associate the role as a male occupation. Data USA states that as of May 2021, there are 172,000 people employed in the waste management and remediation services industry. Roughly 8% are females who drive the trucks compared to the over 75% of women who operate school buses. Across the country, companies are facing a shortage of drivers. Organizations like Republic Services, a nationwide waste disposal company, are working towards closing the gender gap while normalizing career paths for women in heavy equipment operating and trucking.
Sharon Mann, Baton Rouge general manager at Republic Services, saw a need to change her driver recruiting strategy and started putting more women behind the wheel. Today, she has over 68 female drivers and counting in her division out of 160 drivers, including Dedra McKinley, who was recently awarded the 2021 National Commercial Driver of the Year by the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA). Mann’s work also inspired Republic Services’ SheDrives initiative to broaden the driver candidate pool and increase the number of women hired for driver positions across the nation. In one year, the hiring rate of women drivers increased by one-third, placing Republic above the national average for women drivers.
“The company came out at the corporate level and said, ‘We want to develop this SheDrives program, and we’d like for you to be involved in it,’” Mann comments. “There were a lot of people across the company that were involved in this. They went really hard on recruiting women. … They’re even looking at a SheDrives 2.0 program. I hear people talk about 80,000 truck driving openings across the country. We just have to put ourselves out there, not just the waste industry, but all trucking companies, to look at different ways of recruitment.”
Mann began her career as a temporary employee at Republic while attending school. After being offered a full-time position, she worked up the corporate ladder. Thirty-five years later, she’s held various positions, including safety manager, operations manager and region routing manager.
As the trucking industry started seeing a decline in drivers pre-pandemic, Mann had an idea how to fill the vacant spots. While she waited in the car pick-up line at her children’s school, she noticed the bus drivers standing around.
“I got out of my car, and I walked over to the parking lot,” she shares. “I started talking to them and handed out my business cards. At the time, we were short drivers. We really needed to employ drivers, but it was a challenge. We couldn’t get people to apply. And then some of the people that were applying just didn’t meet the qualifications. So while I was talking to these bus drivers, they were like, ‘I never really thought about it. When you see a garbage truck, you really don’t think that women can do that.’ And then I told them my story, and we talked it through. … After that, they started applying. We hired on a couple of them. Now, naturally, my philosophy was, ‘Why not hire them? They are operating in the same neighborhoods that we pick up in, and safety has to be their number one priority because they’re already transporting precious cargo.’”
As this became a popular recruiting tool, Mann also championed the SheDrives initiative, which attracts women like McKinley who want to establish a career for themselves while being present in their children’s lives. McKinley went to trucking school but quickly found that it wasn’t a fit for her lifestyle as a single mother. A few of her friends suggested she apply to Republic. Initially, she started as a driver and quickly became a behind-the-wheel instructor, allowing her to provide for her family while not missing out on the important moments.
Winning the NWRA is no small feat. There are many qualifications the recipient has to demonstrate, including letters of recommendation from customers, family members and the community. Over the past decade, several female drivers from the company have made it to the finalist round; however, this was the first year that a female driver, McKinley, from Republic received the award.
“I work hard,” McKinley states. “I stay focused and am dependable.”
As Mann continues to evolve and expand the recruiting process, she focuses on the following essential steps:
- Don’t take no for an answer. View it as a challenge. The more you challenge yourself, the further along in the process you’ll get.
- Give it everything you’ve got. If it’s something you really want, develop a strategy that will hold you accountable.
- Listen to yourself. There’s going to be so much white noise trying to keep you from what you want to do. You have to trust in yourself and your skillset.
“Whether they’re a male or female, you still treat everybody the same way,” Mann concludes. “Even though they may take a little bit more time, or even men have taken a little bit more time in training, it doesn’t matter. If the person is the right person for the position, we need to keep that in mind. We’re not just trying to put bodies in seats. We’re actually hiring the person to do the job so they’ll do it safely. They’ll take care of our customers, and it’s going to be a career decision for them. For me, it was more about teaching people. We need people, so we have to start thinking outside of the box.”