EDMOND, Okla. — “You can do it,” were the words a volunteer said to Kellylynn McLaughlin as she climbed into the cab of the truck accompanying her child’s marching band in 2014. The rig was used to haul all the marching band’s gear — drums, tubas, uniforms and even a golf cart.
The truck, typically driven by the volunteer, was intimidating to McLaughlin. It looked like fun, but she was hesitant.
“I thought, like a lot of people thought, that it was beyond me,” McLaughlin said in an interview with The Trucker. “I thought you needed to be a mechanic and a man, and had to have been in the industry for years.”
When the volunteer expressed the belief that she could do it, McLaughlin felt a rush of excitement and encouragement. Once she actually drove, she wondered why she had doubted herself.
“I felt very silly for doubting that there was something I couldn’t do, because I have a pretty adventurous spirit,” she said.
McLaughlin’s adventurous spirit has always had its roots in transportation; in fact, she spent her high school years fantasizing of taking flight lessons and being a pilot. In addition, her father was an amateur race car driver, influencing McLaughlin’s longing for life on the road.
“We have engines and speed and transportation in our blood,” she said.
At 50, McLaughlin knew she really wanted to learn how to drive a truck — and she already had experience in transportation as a passenger safety instructor for the National Transportation Safety Administration.
Her life hasn’t been the same since.
“I just decided that if I was old and saying goodbye to the planet, I would want to leave with no regrets,” McLaughlin said. “I would regret not giving (trucking) a go, and I really enjoyed it. I have learned a lot about myself.”
Today, she’s been driving a truck for five years and is a training engineer with Schneider National.
She’s learned a lot about herself and what she can accomplish. Becoming a truck driver has empowered her, she said.
“It was very empowering to conquer something that you think is better than you are,” she said. “To be able to haul an 80,000-pound vehicle through really tight spaces at high speeds on the highway — and do it safely — is such a sense of an accomplishment. I have learned something new every day, and met so many interesting people that I never would have met.”
As McLaughlin adjusted to her new career, she started asking questions like, “How come we don’t tell girls they can be truck drivers if they want to be? Why is it so hard for me to find a bathroom and take a shower? Why do I even have to pay for that shower?”
McLaughlin said these thoughts showed her the nonessential feelings associated with being an essential worker.
“I only had men to ask my questions to. Sometimes they had an answer that was really suitable for a man, but it maybe didn’t really fit my need as a lady,” she said. “I started looking for ways to connect with other women in the industry.”
Asking these questions led McLaughlin on a quest to find her mission — the kind of mission that would challenge and change her. She had gotten into trucking on a whim, but now it was time for her to seek wisdom, a search that led her to Women In Trucking (WIT). WIT is a nonprofit that works to encourage the employment of women in the trucking industry and provide resources in minimizing potential obstacles.
“I wanted something along the terms of professional development and to broaden my horizon and learn about the industry as a whole,” she said. “I just want to leave this industry better than I found it.”
McLaughlin started to notice when she went to truck shows that WIT always had a booth set up. Finally, she joined the organization.
“It was one of the best things I did to connect with other women,” she said. “I got weekly newsletters that sometimes reiterate what I was hearing from other industry journals, but sometimes it would be completely new information that was relevant to me as a lady in the industry. I like the fact that they include not just drivers, but mechanics and executives and associates on the support side of transportation as well.”
In 2020, McLaughlin was named WIT’s first driver ambassador.
In this role, posting a YouTube video — with topics ranging from safety precautions to cooking in the truck, tips on fueling, and more — is on a weekly list of “to-dos” for McLaughlin. There are also blogs to be written and a podcast to produce, as well as media interviews and even a few speaking events, with COVID-19 precautions in place. Without a pandemic, there would be more of those speaking events, she said.
As she visited with The Trucker, McLaughlin was preparing to board a truck dubbed “WITney” that serves as a traveling billboard and educational exhibit for WIT. The trailer is filled with interactive kiosks, quizzes and exhibits that share stories of the trucking lifestyle.
As a trucker and training engineer for Schneider International, McLaughlin splits her time between Schneider and WIT, making the two part-time jobs a full-time commitment. McLaughlin said it can be hard to schedule interviews, podcasts and blogs while she’s on the road, but she is able to make time for everything.
McLaughlin enjoys talking about trucking, which she describes as the “circulatory system” of the nation.
“This is an important job, and these people make sacrifices every day to make sure our country is up and running. The least we could do is be nice and pay them better,” she said with a laugh.
McLaughlin said it was the realization that everything that was in her house came on a truck that brought her to truly appreciate the industry she had joined.
“If (the trucking industry’s) not running, the country just shuts down really quick,” she said. “This country cannot survive without us, and I never gave that much thought before I got into trucking. I was one of those people that just took it for granted, and drivers were just a nuisance on the road.”
At home, she’s more than a driver, a trainer or an ambassador for WIT. She’s a mom with two daughters in college, one of whom is studying aviation, and animals to raise.
“My daughters and I raise pigs, and I like to go on walks with my dog,” she said. “When I’m home, I like to do things like garden and cook and play with the farm animals. I get together with my girlfriends and can just be another ordinary person.”
McLaughlin noted that raising pigs goes hand in hand with her passion for gardening by providing fertilization. She’s been raising pigs off and on for about six years, and says they’re a perfect winter project.
“They’re so smart and fun,” she said. “And the best thing about pigs is that you can get them in the fall and they’re ready to be butchered by springtime. They’re very hardy; they’re coyote-proof.”
She encourages her daughters and animals just like she does the students she trains and the people she teaches along her way. McLaughlin seeks to provide motivation through her YouTube videos, podcasts and blogs much in the same way as she was motivated: She was simply encouraged to hop on a truck and drive.
Hannah Butler is a lover of interesting people, places, photos and the written word. Butler is a former community newspaper reporter and editor for Arkansas Tech University’s student newspaper. Butler is currently finishing up her undergraduate print journalism degree and hopes to pursue higher education. Her work has been featured in at least nine different publications.