Female Route Drivers: The Untapped Resource

Nationally, the vending industry is trailing the overall labor market for females in service occupations. In 2005, the U.S. Bureau of
Labor Statistics found 60 percent of service occupations were held by women. Comparatively, they make up only
14 percent of route drivers in the vending industry and drastically fewer service technicians and route supervisors, according to a recent online survey of more than 150 full-service, candy/snack and OCS operators. These women drivers are out of the norm, having stepped into a male dominated field, yet they are succeeding. Few if any complaints are given about their performance, and most supervisors attribute cleaner machines and trucks to them as well as some focusing on enhanced customer relations, compared to their male counterparts. Based on operators' observations on the comparative quality of female performance, the vending industry is missing out on an opportunity to have better qualified employees.

Females go the extra effort
Terry Neil, president, Cambridge Vending Inc., Ontario, Canada, has been in the vending industry 23 years and can't recall one female route driver until he hired Deborah Jackson five years ago. "She's excellent," he said. Neil feels some of his male drivers have a "get-the-job-done" mentality, which makes them load up, drop off and go home. But Jackson will go the extra effort, giving the customers the best service. And the customers know and like her for the job she does.

Even more than positive customer service, female route drivers have a well-reported reputation for being cleaner and more organized than males.
For Jonathan Wallace, route driver supervisor, Mesilla Valley Snacks Inc., Las Cruces, N.M., the experience of having Stacy Leach at the company as a route driver for the past eight years has been extraordinary. "If anything, I think she's a littler more aggressive as a route driver," Wallace said. His view is female route drivers tend to be cleaner – in all areas.

They are more organized, keep numbers straight and have a better eye for cleaning machines and trucks. Wallace reported some male drivers he's seen can be real slobs, especially the single guys.

Cleaning Prized most by women
"They just don't see it," explained Brenda Dornan, a female route driver for Central Vending Co. in Janesville, Wis. "Woman clean better than men," she said. She's been working for 18 years as a driver, proudly answering to the name, "The Vending Lady." And if customer service is in question, even while off-duty at a location photo shoot for this article, she was professional. A customer stopped her by name and told her the hot beverage machine had a problem. Instead of simply calling it in or sticking an out-of-order sign on it until her next shift, Dornan got all the details and began trouble shooting the machine.

Another female route driver, Stacy Leach, was nominated for Automatic Merchandiser's Route Driver of the Year. "It's not that I'm supposed to do the job as well as the other guys," said Leach, "They expect people to do the job the way I do it. I care about it."

For her, pride in her work makes a lot of difference, including how her machines, truck and everything look. Leach said women seem to be more efficient in cleaning the machines, but that's probably the only real difference. It's very equal, she said. "My boss is always looking for female drivers to hire because they seem to care more. Sure there's physical labor, but if I can do it, anyone can," Leach added.

Other job performance ratings equal
According to the Automatic Merchandiser online survey, 60 percent of operators rated female drivers better on cleanliness of the machines and 50 percent better on cleanliness of the truck. The majority of operators rated females the same as males in customer service, dealing with spoilage, location retention, sales performance, and detailed record keeping.

Customers respond better to females
John Brinkley, president of Automatic Coin Machine Corp. in Winfield, Kan., has hired five or six female route drivers in his 30-plus years and says job performance is about the same.

Customers, however, will often treat a female with more respect. If a machine breaks down and takes a customer's money without delivering product, as an example, the driver's gender makes a difference in how the customer treats the driver. If it's a male route driver, the customer can be confrontational. "The machine stole my damn money!" he used as an illustration. However, if the route driver is female, the customer usually reports the problem in a calmer and nicer manner.

Brinkley noted there tends to be slightly more absenteeism with female drivers. He doesn't believe it's related to health or work ethic, but family matters.

Nor does he believe that higher absenteeism affects overall performance or his view of having females on the job. In fact, both his daughters work for him in the summer.

Dealing with a Physical Job
When comparing men and women at a physically demanding job, muscle is one of the most obvious differences. Certainly strength is a big concern. None of the female route drivers say the lifting is not an effort, but they don't mind it, referring to it as a non-issue.

"You have to exercise (and) stay physically able to do it," said Leach, who has built up a tolerance to the weight. Dornan agrees, talking about how it's heavy lifting, but she looks at it as exercise. She likes the tired (and accomplished) feeling she has at the end of the day.

Jackson at Cambridge Vending Inc. approaches the physical challenges a little differently. "I feel a female can do the same as a male; it just means sometimes taking extra trips in. But that's time with the customer," she said. Jackson views any additional trips she takes as opportunities to develop a better rapport with the customers, listening to product requests, fielding concerns and making herself visible to the location.

Using Notes for prepacking
Jackson also works smarter. Instead of loading and carrying in cases of soda that may or may not be needed, she keeps detailed notes of inventory levels, what she needs the next day, etc. When she gets back to the warehouse, she loads her truck utilizing her notes. This way, she only has to lift and carry what she needs instead of using up all of her energy.

Stairs and other challenges
Other concerns mentioned by operators were locations with lots of stairs. Jackson admitted stairs are tough. She usually puts the empty hand truck at one end and carries the cases up instead of carrying the loaded hand truck.

As far as moving machines, Terry Neil doesn't have females do that.

Brinkley, who owns a smaller business and needs the help of his drivers to transport machines, said, "You have to send a big man with a woman to move a machine."

Overall, strength is not the limitation it appears to be on the surface. Neil, who nominated Deborah Jackson for Automatic Merchandiser's Route Driver of the Year award, said, "Personally, I think she can out do some of the guys."

Leach, another Route Driver of the Year nominee, has a smile in her voice as she described her tolerance to the physical exertion.

"Sometimes I can lift more than the guys," she said. "If they come on a route with me, I can get them tired. I'm used to it."

Why aren't more women in the workforce?
If it's not physical limitations keeping the percentage of women route drivers low, why aren't there more women in the field? Not one operator said he refused to hire a female, with many complimenting the female drivers they've had.

Although this could have been lip service in an era of political correctness, the evidence doesn't suggest this. When asked why as many women aren't hired for vending drivers as men, the most common answer was that women just don't apply. On average, operators reported only 4 percent of their applications for route driver openings were from females. And no one seems to know why.

Some operators say it might be due to women's own perceptions that they can't do the heavy lifting or that they are intimidated because it's a male dominated environment.

No definitive reason fewer women are route drivers
Operators were given other possible choices for the lower employment rates among women during the survey, and 24 percent cited the physical demands as the number two choice, which is hardly a majority. Comments made anonymously included women don't like to sweat and mess up nails, aren't attracted to the job, security issues and even height. Some noted that women, being shorter than men on average, can't see the top shelf of the machine to restock it.

One operator suggested women don't like driving. He said some female applicants balked at driving the box truck, claiming it was too large, although he had found three or four female drivers over the years who didn't mind. "They have done a good job for me. I would hire a competent female when I have an opening," he said.

What women want
Operator willingness to hire female drivers varied somewhat, and was based on personal experiences.

Neil, who might have otherwise been concerned about the physical demands of the job, hired Jackson without giving it a second thought. He knew she was previously refinishing furniture, which requires muscle. And he couldn't be more happy with the results. "She's superb with customers," Neil said.

"To me, customers are my colleagues," Jackson said. Even when these colleagues complain, Jackson has learned to view it as a suggestion; something to do better. She's done lots of jobs, even owned her own company, and wouldn't do anything else but service her vending route.

Dornan was hired at Central Vending because an account asked specifically for a woman. The request was perhaps made for less than honorable reasons, but it gave her a chance to get her foot in the door and she's excelled.

The flexible hours worked well with her family life. She's stayed at the job because it's a good place to work, and she can meet different people and go to different places.

Wallace had no hesitation about hiring Leach because she fit the requirements for the job. With a good character, job history and past performance, he knew right away she'd do well.

"It's a job I love, with a great boss," Leach said about her work, "I care about it." There are actually two female drivers at Mesilla Valley Snacks, Leach and another female driver on a school route, which is where Leach started out.

Based on operator input, women have much to offer as route drivers.