Six months ago, Carrin Hayes quit her job teaching special needs in Denver, Colorado, to become a truck driver.
“People look at me like I’m crazy, but the teachers are underpaid and underappreciated,” Hayes said. “I actually get paid more with a certificate. And I’m not that stressed.
Hayes is among a growing number of black workers taking advantage of a pandemic-related boom in the transportation sector. She trained at the Carter Truck Driving Academy, which is believed to be the only black-owned trucking school in the United States. It opened in 2021 to serve a growing number of Black residents interested in making a career change.
The growing movement of black workers in transportation, as well as other industries such as storage, construction and professional services, comes as many are exploiting the tight labor market to “trade” out of service jobs in search of higher wages and better working conditions.
“The number of Black women who became truck drivers [over the past year] alone and significantly increased their income was huge,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist for job site ZipRecruiter.
The move helped them achieve the fastest wage growth of any racial group last year. The average black worker received an 11.3 percent pay rise last year, compared to 7.4 percent of all workers, according to Labor Department data.
An instructor at Hirschbach Motor Lines in Iowa gave a lecture as part of a commercial driver’s license training program in February © Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald/AP
Black workers perform low-wage jobs in retail stores, restaurants, hotels and theme parks across the United States at disproportionately high rates. But many are abandoning service jobs in favor of higher-paying jobs in industries like transportation, in a shift economists hope will help narrow the racial wage gap permanently.
In 2019, one in five black workers worked in the leisure and hospitality industry, which paid an average wage of $20.77 an hour in December, according to Labor Department data. However, trucking workers made an average of $29.54 and more than double that had access to retirement benefits. Walmart advertises starting salaries of up to $110,000 for the drivers of its private fleet.
More black workers entered the transportation and utilities supersector in the first half of 2022 than any other industry group monitored by the Labor Department in the first half of 2022, according to an analysis by the White House Council of Economic Advisors. Nearly 11% of black workers were employed in the industry in the first half of 2022, up 1.5 percentage points from the same period in 2019.
With an aging workforce and high retirement rates, transportation and utility companies were desperate to expand their workforces even before the pandemic caused labor shortages. Supply chain issues at the start of the pandemic made them even more so.
The racial reckoning that took place after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 inspired many of these predominantly white companies to reach out to communities of color for the first time, said Laron Evans, president of the American Association of Blacks in Energy.
“Traditionally, thinking back 10 or 15 years ago, when I first started in the industry I didn’t see a large percentage of underrepresented groups within the industry,” said Evans, who also works as a director for the engineering firm Burns based in Kansas City & McDonnell, which advises utility providers across the country.
“But in the last few years, you’ve seen an increase,” Evans added. “I think 2020 has been a catalyst that has given things more steam.”
Transportation jobs, like many in other industries that saw an increase in the share of Black workers in 2022, typically don’t require college degrees, making them an easy transition for workers looking to exit the service sector. Many employers have also begun subsidizing certification programs for workers who want to enter the field for the first time.
“We can’t just rely on traditional sources when it comes to talent scouting,” said Leon Harden, Diversity Equity & Inclusion Strategy Manager at Burns & McDonnell. Burns & McDonnell sponsors STEM programs at local high schools and has partnered with historically black colleges to diversify their talent pool.
Last year, 19.7 percent of the 2.3 million trucking workers in the United States were black, according to the Labor Department, up 1.2 percentage points from 2019.
Full-time black workers have earned about 20 percent less than their white counterparts since the 1970s, even as the gap between the shares of black and white Americans with college degrees has narrowed, according to a study by US economists. ‘University of Chicago and Duke.
Last year, 19.7 percent of the 2.3 million trucking workers in the United States were black, according to the Labor Department, up 1.2 percentage points from 2019 © Andres Kudacki/AP
Black workers enjoyed a record unemployment rate in 2019, but that progress reversed in 2020 as the Covid-19 crisis eliminated millions of leisure and hospitality jobs. The unemployment rate for black workers peaked at 16.8% in May 2020, two percentage points higher and a month later than the overall unemployment rate. In January, the black unemployment rate fell to 5.4%, its lowest since the start of the pandemic, but still much higher than the overall rate of 3.4%.
“Things haven’t been as bad as they used to be, but that’s because they’ve been so much worse in the past,” said Patrick Mason, an economics professor at Florida State University. “So I’m concerned that wages aren’t keeping up with the pace of inflation and wages for the least educated in particular.”
Trucking jobs were also very sensitive to economic changes, Pollak said. The transportation and utilities sector is one of only three where workers are being laid off at higher rates than before the pandemic as companies prepare for an economic downturn.
“It can be a very variable industry where income is not stable and depends a lot on economic conditions,” Pollak said. “So I’m afraid some of the workers entering that industry are now struggling.”
Hayes, the Colorado teacher turned truck driver, said the industry was still grappling with how to be more inclusive of black workers. In Colorado, according to the states Department of Motor Vehicles, 91 percent of commercial driver’s license holders who have self-reported their race are white.
“This is a very scary industry, especially for people of color,” Hayes said.
“But once you get past that barrier, you can have people knocking on your door, saying ‘Hey, I hear you have your [commercial drivers licence]please come work with me’.”