Some people get the bug early, growing up around trucks and the trucking industry, knowing they want to drive those huge machines someday. Others pursue a different path, coming to trucking later, often when the circumstances of life compel them to try something different.
The latter is the case for Karen Noel. After a career spanning more than three decades in the banking industry, crunching numbers and reconciling accounts, she found herself behind the wheel. She also found recognition as Women In Trucking’s (WIT) January 2021 Member of the Month.
“Working in banking, I never had a clue about trucks,” she said. Noel came to trucking when she was laid off from her banking job and her truck-driver husband, Roosevelt, invited her to ride along on the road.
“I was amazed at the women drivers I saw,” she related. She spoke to those she met and, with their encouragement, began to shift her mindset from being a passenger to taking the wheel. “I decided to get my CDL so I could drive, too,” she said.
She began by enrolling at Apex CDL Institute in Kansas City, Kansas. Once confronted with the realities of piloting a tractor-trailer, Noel said she had to face down some fears. “I had to overcome a lot of insecurities and questioned if I really wanted to do this job,” she recalled.
As with many CDL students, backing an articulated vehicle did not come naturally for Noel. “Everything was backwards from my car,” she said. “It was hard to remember how to get the trailer to go in the direction I wanted.”
Noel credits her husband for his patience while she developed her skills. “I practiced a lot, and my husband is very patient,” she related. “He makes me believe in myself.”
She faced another insecurity after graduation, when she was faced with the prospect of completing a driver-finishing program with someone she had never met.
“One company I applied to said I had to go with a female trainer, but I wanted to go with my husband, because I trust him,” she said. She and Roosevelt negotiated with potential employers, settling on Knight Transportation, which agreed to allow her husband to be her trainer. “If I had been with another trainer, I might not have made it,” she remarked.
In the end, Noel’s tenacity — combined with Roosevelt’s patience — paid dividends. “My husband was my trainer, but I still had to pass the assessment to be allowed to drive,” she said. Pass she did, and the couple became an operating team for Knight.
Soon, the urge to own their own truck took over — and so did Noel’s talent for investigating and organizing. They started with a well-known resource, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA).
“We met the OOIDA truck at one of our stops and got a lot of advice about owning our own truck,” she said. Next, they talked to other owner-operator teams. Noel’s banking background came into play as the couple formed a business plan. That plan include a change of carrier.
Once they had a plan in place, they worked on obtaining a truck. “After talking to other owner-operators, we determined that we did not want to lease/purchase a truck,” she said. “We decided to buy.”
They visited a Peterbilt dealer, planning to check out used equipment, but fate intervened.
“Somebody had ordered a yellow Peterbilt 579 with the PACCAR engine and automated transmission,” she explained. That original deal never happened. After listening to their plan, the dealer offered terms that were acceptable. “The cards just kind of fell in place on that one.”
The couple leased their new Pete to Forward Air, where they felt they could get the miles they need to make the business work. “We work open route. We run a lot of I-80, I-70 and I-40 and occasionally I-20,” she explained. “We like 2,000 to 2,400 mile runs when we can get them.”
For Noel, winning the Member of the Month award from WIT helped validate her success in her new career. “It put me in a place to think I’m really a driver,” she explained. “I didn’t think it would happen and I thank God for it.”
When she’s not on the road, Noel spends time with family. “When I’m home, I help care for the grandkids, and homeschool them when I can,” she said. “It’s harder when we’re gone so much.”
While Noel credits her husband for his help, she says her soon-to-be 94-year-old mother, Rotina, helped instill Noel’s drive and determination. “She always had an ‘I can’ attitude,” she commented. Noel inherited that spirit and tries to pass it along to others. “You CAN,” she insisted. “There is no such thing as, ‘I can’t learn to do that.’ You can do anything you set your mind to.”
Noel acknowledges the help she received while looking for a new career and wants to give something back. “I’d like to be able to help people who struggle with upward mobility,” she said. “I went to this program, ‘Connections to Success,’ and I’d like to get involved with them when I can.” She added, “They help a lot of people who are unemployed and discouraged.”
Noel’s faith is another important value. “My faith is more important than ever, now that I’m driving,” she explained. “If I didn’t pray so much, I probably wouldn’t make it.”
Until she began trucking, Noel attended services at her church on Sundays and Wednesdays. That’s not possible while on the road, but she does what she can. “We visit the Trucker Chapels at truck stops when we’re on the road,” she said. “My husband is a faithful man.”
She reads a lot when she’s not driving, and she hopes to resume knitting and crocheting one day, when time permits. “I’d also like to learn to play a musical instrument,” she added. “I played the French horn in high school.”
Whether she’s taking on a hobby or a new career, it’s a good bet Noel will find a way to succeed.
“Believe in yourself and be determined,” she said. “Turn ‘I can’t’ into ‘I WILL.’”
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.