Recapturing the Image of the Everyday Hero: Image Reform in the Trucking Industry

with Elisabeth Barna

Before the 1990s, the image of the American truck driver was strongly positive. Movies like Convoy starring Kris Kristofferson, Over the Top starring Sylvester Stallone, and Any Which Way but Loose starring Clint Eastwood all have truck drivers as protagonists— each of these characters working to fight injustice and corruption to help the common man. This is only a partial listing of the movies that portray truck drivers as reliable, hardworking everyday heroes. Somewhere along the way, this positive image has been tarnished, cracked, and torn—and the industry’s ability to recruit new drivers has suffered immensely for it.

One of the major issues facing the industry today his how to rebuild that positive image for the modern era in order to recruit younger drivers and instill pride and boost job satisfaction in the current driver workforce. Enter Elisabeth Barna, Chief Operating Officer at the American Trucking Association (ATA). On a recent episode of Recruit and Retain: Trucking Edition Podcast, Barna shared with us what she calls “a movement” launched by the ATA called “Trucking Moves American Forward” (TMAF) which is working towards restoring and improving the public face of the trucking industry.

A Movement Towards Image Reform

Barna terms TMAF as a movement rather than a campaign because campaigns are intended to take place within a certain time period, whereas TMAF is in it for the long haul— pun most definitely intended. Indeed, TMAF builds upon another ATA image-building initiative that began in the mid-80s called “America’s Road Team” a national public outreach program led by a small group of professional drivers who exemplify the best in the industry with impeccable safety records, superior driving skills, and a passion for spreading the message of safety, sustainability, professionalism, and pride.

American’s Road Team began in 1986 with six team captains, but today has grown to include 80-90 team captains and over 500 veteran captains. Every two years, the ATA receives over 2,000 applications from those interested in becoming team captains, all of whom must first be nominated by their companies for driving excellence. After a rigorous screening process, this number is whittled down to about 30 drivers who are asked to give a short speech and participate in personal, as well as mock media interviews. This process is intended to find not only the most qualified drivers, but also those who possess a genuine charisma to become truly passionate advocates for the trucking industry.

The TMAF Movement grew from the seeds planted by America’s Road Team—that drivers are people with important stories to share, that being a driver should be a source of personal pride and that truck driving is an excellent career full of opportunity and promise.  TMAF was launched about four years ago at the Mid-American Truck Show, and each year since then has focused on different areas of meaningful image change. For example, during the first year of the movement, the ATA encouraged drivers to share their personal stories on how their roles in the trucking industry have positively shaped not only their lives, but those of their families and even their communities. The aim of this driver storytelling initiative is to paint a picture of the people behind the wheel of every truck we see on the highway and to break down negative stereotypes. Indeed, a recent national poll found that when people feel that they know a driver personally, their perception of truck drivers in general is more positive.

Some other ways TMAF is working to improve the image of the American truck driver include:

    • Sending TMAF show trucks to schools, trade shows, media events, and even the White House lawn to provide a meaningful, hands-on experience of the day-to-day life of drivers.
    • Drivers sharing positive workplace stories with students seeking a career path
    • The ATA recently naming a mascot, Safety Sammy, who visits schools, trade shows, and media events to spread a positive message about the trucking industry in a way that is accessible to even the youngest children
  • Billboard, print, digital, and social media advertising campaigns that humanize drivers in order to create positive personal connections between truck drivers and the public

Empowering Individual Action

Although Barna is very proud of the great strides the ATA has made with the America’s Road Team program and the TMAF movement, she cautions that it would be a mistake to assume that only large organizations have the power to make meaningful changes that influence the image of the trucking industry. In fact, Barna stated that grassroots efforts to further the interests and positive message of the trucking industry have historically proven to be the most effective.

Barna shared that state and local representatives really sat up and took notice when they met with ATA members on a consistent basis. It’s an unfortunate fact that too many important legislative decisions are made by those looking down on the problem with very little perspective on what is really happening on the ground. When individual constituents reach out to their government representatives, those in power are able to put a human face and a personal story to the problem at hand so that legislators can better understand the effect policy decisions can have on those working in the industry every day.  On the podcast episode, Barna encouraged all members of the trucking community–from carriers, to dispatchers, to the individual drivers themselves, to seek out their congressional representatives regularly in order to initiate discussions on the most pressing issues facing the industry today.

It All Comes Down to Pride

The fact is, creating a positive public image of the trucking industry begins with pride. Pride comes when drivers can see that they are an essential part of our U.S. economy—without them, everything grinds to a halt. Trucking companies can work to support driver pride by creating a workplace culture that shows drivers they have value and can be a positive force for change in the industry, as well as the larger world around them.

People who take pride in their jobs are eager to build a positive reputation supported by the great work they do—this includes carriers as well as drivers. Taking pride in themselves translates into respect from others—but everyone in the industry must do their part to effect significant change. The trucking industry must undergo a major cultural shift in order to move forward successfully. The saying goes, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Carriers that treat their drivers as heroes will help drivers actually become those heroes. Empowered drivers will become real advocates for the industry and carriers of the positive message that will change public perception for the better. Barna and the ATA are building the foundation for this monumental change, but it will take the widespread participation of each member of the trucking community to fully recapture the image of those bygone everyday heroes.

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