When JD Irving called Erica Phillips in 2006, approving her for a seat in a free eight-week Class 1 truck driving course, she was surprised.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Phillips says. She wasn’t even sure if the trucking industry would be for her. But in nearly two decades, she has gone from being one of New Brunswick’s few female truck drivers, hauling lumber products in and out of the most remote parts of the woods, to a driver-trainer aspiring to become an examiner.
Each challenge along the way fueled her passion for the career – whether it involved driving, dispatch, administration, or training new drivers.
In 2011, she was even driving her 2007 Freightliner Classic despite being 35 weeks into her pregnancy. She was barely able to get in and out of the truck. The driver she was training to take her seat during maternity leave would sometimes give her a boost, to help get her foot up on the first step.
“I had to do a little bit of a run and jump for it because my belly was… you know, I was huge,” Phillips says. “I know he [the trainee] was awfully worried that I was going to have that baby in the truck. And I bought him a book about delivering a baby. It was just a joke, but he was like, ‘I don’t want that book!’
“People thought I was crazy.”
But Phillips says driving while pregnant was not the craziest part of her trucking journey. It was simply one of many challenges to overcome.
“When I first started, I didn’t have a kid and I only had myself to worry about, and I would push myself, probably more than I would today. Because now I do have a kid, now I do have somebody I have to come home to,” she says.
“Back in the day when I first started driving, I would have tried anything. But today, 18 years later, yeah, I definitely would make some different decisions than I would have made in my first couple of years.”
Driving in the woods is not for the faint of heart, she says.
Taking decisions to travel in bad weather, for example, might have been risky. But this was the way Phillips learned to navigate the woods, leading to experience she can now share with her students.
It’s how she knows that red-colored mud and sand tend to be particularly slippery and sloppy in the rain. Meanwhile, the more rocks there are in the soil, the more traction a driver can expect. She also stresses that carrying a bag of salt and sand in the cab – “just enough to get you out if you are stuck” — can become a ‘godsend’ in the woods, especially during unexpected changes in weather.
“Back in the day when I first started driving, I would have tried anything.”
– Erica Phillips
Chains can help while driving in the mud and snow, too.
“I always used the set of single-wheel chains. So, one chain on one tire on the back, and one on the other side on the back. And if I knew the area, then I would know ‘OK, well there’s a great big hill in this area. I’m going to put my wheel chains on now, ahead of time, just in case I need them,’” she says. “If the weather was changing, I always made sure that I put those wheel chains on ahead of time, you know, before you get in a mess, because they’re not going to help you once you’re in a mess.”
While driving on a new road in the woods, it is also better to stay closer to the middle of the path, rather than following the same tracks, Phillips adds. A lot of times, road edges are soft. If everybody rolls along the same track and push it deeper, truck floors will begin to bottom out on the road’s crown. “You kind of got to stagger a little bit, as you’re going in and out, to keep that road flat.”
Reputation for hard work
While it was easy to become well known in the province as one of a “handful” of female drivers in New Brunswick, she believes she earned a good reputation in a male-dominated industry.
“It wasn’t always peaches and cream. Because some men didn’t approve of women drivers…But I proved that I could drive better than some of these guys. And I kind of made a reputation for myself for being, you know, a hard worker, always showing up for work, and not just shutting the truck down at the first sign of a snowflake.”
Despite the thrill she experienced while driving, though, she began the search for a role in trucking that offered more stable hours of work after her daughter was born. This is how she transitioned from driving to dispatch within J.D. Irving.
When that job was eliminated several years later, and Phillips found herself laid off with a child to provide for, the reputation for hard work paid dividends. She was only off work for a week or two when a former colleague reached out to offer a job as a Class 1 driver trainer in his father’s school.
Phillips remembers joking about hoping to be unemployed for longer, but she took the job since previous experiences prepared her well for the new role.
“I went in there on a Monday morning just to see what it was like, and I didn’t leave for three and a half years.”
Training a new generation
While Philips is the one training young drivers, she continues to learn new things by overcoming challenges.
Language barriers, for example, can become a big issue while training international students. She has taught people from India, Brazil, Ukraine, Australia and many other countries. But she particularly remembers one older student who did not speak a word of English when he arrived. His daughter came to the first class to translate. After that, Phillips communicated using hand signals and an online translator.
“He was a driver before coming here. He had some experience already on that end,” Phillips recalls. “But the pre-trip [inspection] was probably the part with him that was the hardest, because of component names and things like this. But we made it through, he passed his tasks, and he would point at something or pull on something and say, ‘This is good’. You know, that’s the only English sentence he could say.”
Language barriers can sometimes be dangerous, she adds. Especially when trainees don’t understand commands to slow down. That has required some quick reactions.
“You’re in a big deadly weapon, essentially, barreling down the road with a guy that doesn’t understand [you],” she says.
“But most of the time it went well.”
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