Overcoming obstacles: immigrant women navigate challenges in Canada’s trucking industry

The once male-dominated trucking sector in Canada presents opportunities for immigrants, particularly women. However, newcomers are facing hurdles

In Canada’s transportation landscape, the trucking sector, once dominated by male workers, is now offering a plethora of opportunities for immigrants, especially women. 

However, breaking into this industry comes with its set of challenges, including eligibility constraints, language barriers, knowledge gaps, maternity benefit limitations, and other issues.

Efforts are being made to address labour shortages with tailored training programs and support systems focused on reducing cultural barriers, busting myths, and drawing in diverse representations from communities for inclusive growth and integration in the community.

The Ontario government has committed $1.3 million to train 54 women and newcomers for in-demand trucking roles, addressing an acute need for at least 6,100 additional truck drivers to ensure timely goods delivery and support the province’s economic stability.

“Currently, we are preparing for Session Three, scheduled to commence in December, marking the final group of participants under this funding. We are hopeful that the government will continue its support for the program. Our participants vary in age, ranging from 19 to 49 years old, and include a significant number from underrepresented groups as well as women,” said Shelley Walker, CEO of the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada

Challenges in the industry range from eligibility constraints, such as Canadian citizenship or Permanent Residency for long-haul trucking due to complex visa processes, to language barriers, with English or French fluency being essential. The Ministry of Transportation offers knowledge tests in multiple languages, but most companies that these women could work for lack translation services.

“There is a lack of knowledge among candidates about Canadian laws, particularly in areas of taxation and workers’ rights, raising major concerns,” Walker says.

As an example, she refers to the ‘Driver Inc’ model, where truckers are hired as independent contractors without adequate explanation of their financial responsibilities.

To combat these issues, the Federation has introduced a two-week soft skills training in addition to the regular truck driving training program. The soft skills training covers a range of topics from drivers’ rights to mental health, aiming to equip participants with the necessary skills for a successful career in trucking. “We see this soft skills training missing from any current training that goes on today, where participants are only taught enough to pass a road test,” Walker said. 

A recent Abacus Research survey highlights the trucking industry’s crucial role in Canada’s economy, with a majority of Canadians acknowledging its importance. Just over half of Canadians (51 per cent) surveyed consider trucking the most important mode to get goods delivered across Canada, and three in four Canadians (76 per cent) believe trucking to be either the most or second most important mode in getting goods to market.

​​In the trucking industry, women face several challenges, including safety concerns with equipment and balancing childcare, particularly when starting families. 

“There is no maternity benefits for pre-existing maternity so if the doctor puts you on bed rest of five months and on, there’s no source of income from you, depending on what province you live in, and some of the provinces like Ontario you can go on sick leave and then start into your maternity benefits, but that shortens the time that you’re going to be allowed to be home with your child,” Walker explained.

Moreover, the misconceptions about physical strength requirements deter many women from considering truck driving as a career, despite efforts to establish supportive environments within companies. After the training, the Federation also connects the participants to a wide variety of cross-border and Canada-only employers, whose policies fit the needs of individuals who might need flexible hours or week-day only shifts for family commitments. Though employment opportunities vary, depending on routes and size of the employer, the potential first-year earnings are at least $55,000, increasing with experience.

As part of their advocacy efforts, the Federation shares stories of other women, whether they’re a driver or a diesel technician, or they’re in the office in the various roles that are available and talk about their career in trucking so that women know that it’s a viable option.

Despite these efforts, the Federation faces challenges in community engagement, particularly in the South Asian community, due to existing stereotypes and preferences for insular interactions.

Walker notes an increase in women’s representation in corporate trucking roles, but a lag in field positions, with minimal growth in female drivers since 2016. The Federation is planning for partnerships with community organizations to fill knowledge and training gaps. 

When women from diverse backgrounds obtain their trucking licenses, the Federation ensures that these women in particular are highlighted to share their positive experiences in the industry. “Our aim is to encourage more women of different nationalities to share their stories and inspire others, offering a more empowering narrative to newcomers than just hearing from us who they can’t connect with,” Walker said.