Muscling in on male territory
Women are taking well-paid jobs driving big rigs, defying popular belief that trucking is a job for the boys
Driving trailer trucks is one of the better-paid jobs which have survived the Covid-19 pandemic and more women have been getting behind the wheel.
A profession traditionally dominated by men, its doors are slowly opening to wives and mothers who have shattered the gender glass celing.
As the job market dries up because of the Covid-19 crisis, many women are looking for secure work with steady pay to supplement the family income, even if it lands them in unfamiliar territory.
On her work days, Natthinan Sawasdi, 37, gets into the driver's seat of a 18 or 22-wheel trailer truck belonging to the Mon Transport company based in Laem Chabang port in Chon Buri.
She picks up freight from customers, most of them in neighbouring Rayong, and brings it back to the port for export. She covers a distance of around 200km on each return trip, and doesn't find the job too stressful.
Employed in October last year, Ms Natthinan said she has grown more confident in handling large trucks and her pay reflects it. She earns around 25,000 baht a month, plus welfare benefits. Ms Natthinan considers the pay rather high, given her modest educational background.
She delivers metal, plastic pallets and chemical substances labelled as dangerous goods. Ms Natthinan has acquired a Tor 4 special driver's licence to carry the dangerous items.
After she was trained to drive the truck, she was awarded a Tor 3, an entry-level licence permitting her to command large vehicles. However, she had set her mind on upgrading her skills to obtain the Tor 4 upgrade.
"The Tor 4 licence allows us to drive any type of truck without limitation," Ms Natthinan said, adding the more experience she gets, the more money she can make.
She recalled the first time she laid her hands on the wheel of a pickup truck five years ago. That was a far cry from the huge trucks she handles now with younger drivers looking up her and seeing her as something of a role model.
She says she is trying to impart her knowledge and experience of driving the trucks to younger women who are also braving the profession.
"It used to be an old boys' club, this profession, because of safety concerns and the special set of skills needed to take on the job," Ms Natthinan said.
Being able to drive a pickup truck in the beginning was nowhere as hard as finding a place that would train her to drive large trucks.
In the middle of 2017, she applied for training at a freight transport firm which promised to enroll her. She turned up later only to be told by the firm it did not accept women for training and that it did not specialise in training people to drive large trucks.
Ms Natthinan felt rudderless having quit her factory job and now being turned away from training.
But luck was on her side after she came across a training offer by the state-run International Institute for Skill Development (IISD) in Chiang Saen district of Chiang Rai.
She remembers the training was so tough she was driven to tears by the frustration of not being able to follow instructions. But she soon learned the ropes and became more at ease with the training.
After she completed the course, she was hired by a company to drive a truck taking tractors, farm implements and machinery to Laos and Cambodia.
"It was like winning a trophy to be taking on such a challenging and eye-opening job," she said.
Suksri Laikasikam, director of IISD Chiang Saen, said the institute opened in 2015 and 514 people have graduated in that time. The course, which specialises in trailer truck driving, runs for 210 hours over 30 days.
It not only teaches people driving techniques but educates them about road rules and discipline. The course also instils positive thinking in drivers so they will be cool-headed and less likely to succumb to road rage.
The training costs 3,000 baht inclusive of safety gear, a stay in a dormitory and lunch. Trainees must be at least 22 years old.
Winai Meechan, course instructor, said the number of women joining up is increasing, and they proving to be more patient and bolder at making decisions than many men.
"Women tend to start out feeling unsure of themselves. But after some guidance, their confidence just soars," he said, adding that the training takes participants through every aspect of a trailer truck's "anatomy", from steering to suspension systems.
Thanyapisit Sae Jang said she and her husband graduated from the IISD Chiang Saen and they are both making delivery rounds for large discount stores in Sakon Nakhon, Udon Thani and Nong Khai.
She said she sold clothes at a flea market before Covid-19 struck, but believes it was that bad luck which led her to a new, more rewarding career that could prove much more fruitful in the long run.