When some people enter the trucking industry, it’s a career change. For Jessica Luttrell, it was a life-changing experience.
“I wasn’t getting anywhere in Arizona,” she said in a recent interview with The Trucker. With a past that included raising her two children with government assistance and periods of homelessness, Luttrell needed a change. Thus began a transformation that continues today, thanks to the trucking industry and one special driver. That transformation includes selection as the Women in Trucking December 2019 Member of the Month.
Jessica hauls dairy products between distribution centers for Umpqua Dairy, a 75-truck operation with headquarters in Roseburg, Oregon. She typically works evening/night shifts, running dairy products to Umpqua “depots” for the coming delivery day. “I think I have it easy compared to some other drivers,” she said. “I don’t do the retail runs, I haul truckload to the Umpqua distribution centers.”
Like many, her trucking career began with a solo over-the-road position. Once her boyfriend obtained a CDL of his own, they teamed together for a couple of years before Jessica found local work in order to spend more time with her two children. “I worked for a farm that serviced septic tanks and porta-potties,” she explained. Her job was to haul the fermented sludge to local farms, spreading it on hay fields as fertilizer.
She also drove dump trucks for a local construction firm before hiring on as Umpqua Dairy’s first female driver.
“I love being able to support myself and my kids, provide benefits and all the things that the trucking industry provides,” she said.
Luttrell’s odyssey in trucking began with her (then) boyfriend’s suggestion that they give Oregon a try. They loaded their possessions into an RV and hit the road. “Unfortunately, our RV broke down and we had to get a U-Haul for our belongings, so we were travelling in a U-Haul with two kids a dog and a cat,” she explained. “Then, the money ran out.”
The young family found themselves stranded at a truck stop in Corning, California, without the funds to complete their trip. That’s when a big-hearted trucker did what truckers so often do. “A woman truck driver walked up and asked ‘What’s your story? I can tell that I need to help you.’ Then she told us to pull the U-Haul up to the pump. She filled it up and then gave us money to buy food,” Luttrell said.
That fuel and the encouragement that came with it was enough to complete the trip. “I can’t believe I didn’t even get her name,” she said.
Once in Oregon, she couldn’t help but notice the large variety of trucks plying Interstate 5 and local roads. “They were amazing,” she said. “I still want to try heavy haul and I want to drive a log truck.”
Her curiosity piqued, Jessica began to check out the industry. “It looked fun and seemed to offer (financial) stability,” she said, but she didn’t get much support at first. “People told me ‘that’s stupid,’” she said. “Nobody took me seriously until I got my permit.”
That’s when she applied for a scholarship to the Umpqua Community College CDL program through Umpqua Training and Employment, a partnership between the college and local trucking businesses. It wasn’t easy. “I had to pass an assessment, interview drivers and participate in a scholarship selection process,” she explained. “I thought I was going to have to take a remedial math class to go to CDL school!” When all was said and done, “I was awarded a scholarship for the four-week CDL course at the college.”
Since then, she’s worked to become more active in trucking, joining WIT and visiting classes at the community college with her (now ex) husband. She was interviewed by WIT President and CEO Ellen Voie for the organization’s radio show and also appeared in a promotional video for the college where she obtained her CDL (youtu.be/wnbsyXc9NxU). Currently, she’s communicating with a representative of the college about making regular visits to address the classes.
Luttrell’s future plans are to move into management. “I am like the safety police,” she laughed, “so I think I would do well in a safety role.” She knows, however, that more knowledge leads to more opportunities. “The more I learn about the industry, the more I want to learn about the different parts and how everything works.”
She understands that a move from her current residence in a small town a half-hour from the Umpqua headquarters in Roseburg may be necessary.
When asked about her hobbies and work outside of the trucking industry, Luttrell was specific. “My kids are my life, my dogs are my life,” she explained. One of her two daughters is 19 and has since moved out of the home, but the 11-year old still lives with Luttrell. That’s another reason she’d like to work regular daytime hours in the office.
She also describes herself as “a hardcore animal lover,” who is proud of the work she and her ex-husband did with Gettin’ Em Home Transport (gettinemhome.com), a charitable organization that utilizes volunteers to transport dogs and cats from animal shelters to rescue centers and foster homes in other states. “Some of them were great to travel with and some we couldn’t wait to get rid of, but we loved doing it,” Luttrell said, explaining that it wasn’t always easy. “There were a lot of relays to get the animal where it was going,” she said. “Some didn’t understand we were in a big truck and kept trying to arrange a meet at Starbucks, but we worked it out.”
Luttrell still has one dog from the program, along with another rescued elsewhere.
She understands that there’s a message in how far she’s come, with credit to the help she received getting started, and she wants others to know their lives can improve, too. “I want people to know you can make a future for yourself,” she said. “If you’re stuck in a rut in your life, go out there and do something for yourself.”
As a member of the family of trucking, she has a simple message to her fellow drivers. “We are all on the same team and we all have some of the same struggles,” she said. “Let’s work together.”
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.