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“I won’t put you in a truck because you’re a woman.”
That’s what Julie Hjelle heard from a potential employer when she was first applying for a job in 1994. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Who: Winners from nine categories at the state level have advanced to the national competition, where a Grand Champion will be crowned
What: Contestants are judged on a written examination and their driving skills
When: Aug. 14-17
Twenty-five years later, Hjelle has made history as the first woman to qualify for the National Truck Driving Championships from North Dakota, as well as the first woman from the state to win Rookie of the Year. She earned 405 points in the Sleeper Berth class at the North Dakota Truck Driving Championships on June 1. She was edged out for Grand Champion honors by Scott Meyers of FedEx Freight, who won the Tank Truck class.
Hjelle (pronounced jelly), 48, of Lankin, N.D., is one of few women drivers (estimated at about 7% by Women In Trucking Association) working in a male-dominated industry. When she first started driving, simply finding a job was nearly impossible.
“I went to a good truck driving school, but no one would hire me,” she said.
NORTH DAKOTA ARCHIVE PAGE: Previews, recaps and more
Hjelle was the only woman in her class. All of the men in her class found jobs easily, but her path was a bit rockier. After responding to several ads in the paper and being met with rejection after rejection, she eventually secured a job with Altendorf Trucking in 1995.
This still did not change the fact that trucking was a boys’ club. In the early years of Hjelle’s career, some truck stops did not even have showers for women. A worker would have to lock the entire men’s bathroom, so no men in the truck stop were able to use the bathroom while she showered.
Even more difficult for Hjelle was spending time away from her family. When she first started driving, her son was 3 and her daughter was just 4 months old. She often had to leave them for up to two months at a time. Once, after a few weeks on the road, she returned home to find that her 18-month-old daughter did not recognize her. When Hjelle held her daughter, she began screaming for her father.
“She had no idea who I was,” Hjelle said. “Five minutes later, she was fine. And she never did it again. But that’s one of those moments that I do remember and think about sometimes.”
Being a truck driver and also a mother is not easy, but Hjelle takes solace in the fact that she always supported her children financially.
“For me, if you aren’t paying the bills, you aren’t worth a crap,” she said.
As a driver, you have to put in a lot of hours, and Hjelle did just that. She kept driving even while taking online classes through the University of Phoenix, earning a Bachelor of Science in communications in 2013.
“At the busiest time, I was working one full-time job, going to school full time and working two part-time jobs,” she said. “So it was busy.”
In the future, Hjelle would like to go back to school. For the time being, however, she is focused on preparing for NTDC in Pittsburgh, Aug. 14-17. Hjelle said she never expected to win anything at the state championships, let alone make it to nationals.
“In my wildest dreams, I thought maybe I’d have a chance of winning Rookie. But to win my class? No. I was just completely shocked.”
She is dedicating her summer to reading “Facts for Drivers” and making flashcards to prepare for the written test.
“One driver told me, ‘What you did was kindergarten. Nationals are college.’ So I’m pretty nervous about that,” she said.
Regardless of what happens at NTDC, Hjelle is just thankful to be doing what she loves.
“There isn’t anything that makes me happier than what I’m doing right now,” she said. “I’m driving down the road, I’m looking out my windshield and life is good.”
All North Dakota competitors moving on to nationals:
Grand Champion: Scott Meyers, FedEx Freight
3-Axle: Cameron Janousek, FedEx Freight
4-Axle: Christopher Scholand, FedEx Freight
5-Axle: Steve Johnson, XPO Logistics
Sleeper Berth: Julie Hjelle, Altendorf Trucking
Straight Truck: Jamie Ackerland, FedEx Freight
Flatbed: Edward Oliver, Magnum
Tank Truck: Scott Meyers, FedEx Freight
Twins: John Janousek, FedEx Freight
Step Van: Josh Metzger, FedEx Express