Passing the Torch
How one driver is doing her part to bridge the generation gap
By Katie Neal
Growing up in southern California, Christine Stratton didn’t have playmates — she had truckers. Her family owned a milk transport company, and she lived on the terminal property.
“The drivers treated me like a princess,” she says. “They would always stop and ask me about my day, and they would show me things in the garage.”
The pride they took in their jobs, and the intensity in her father’s eyes when he took the wheel, Stratton says, left her with an extremely positive impression of the trucking industry. So 11 years ago, armed with an art degree she didn’t know what to do with, she turned to driving.
“When I told my dad, he said, ‘You can’t do that — you’ve never been on time in your life!’” she recalls with a laugh. “Because of that statement, I have not been late on a load in 11 years. Don’t tell a girl she can’t do something!”
Though she excelled at driving, Stratton’s true calling, she soon found, was teaching rookies the ropes. “Drivers were always showing me how to do things as a kid, so maybe I’m just carrying on the tradition,” says the Prime Inc. driver-trainer. “There are all these guys saying, ‘I’ve been out here 20 years, and let me tell you, we had it rough. Why should we let the rookies off the hook?’ And not enough people are helping the new guys.”
A Lasting Impression
Over the years, Stratton has had a lot of students — male and female, kids just out of school and career-changers. She often is assigned to the company’s toughest cases, drivers who’ve been given just one last chance to learn the trade.
“Not a lot of people want a female trainer, so I sometimes get the leftovers,” she says with a laugh.
But one trainee, Randy Pease, was special. Four years ago, the then-21-year-old driver was looking to earn some money to save up for college and joined Prime. He, too, had fond memories of trucking as a child, thanks to a summer spent on the road with his grandparents, who drove for 50 years. Stratton and Pease hit it off right away, as student and teacher and as friends.
“Randy didn’t just want to get out in the truck — he wanted to learn,” Stratton says. “He really listened to what I said. And he is so full of laughter.”
Pease had worked with several other trainers, who were adequate but didn’t seem to have much passion for teaching. They showed him the technical skills required to pass the test and collected their trainer paychecks, he says, but left him with little understanding of the culture, the quirks of the job and the mindset he’d need to succeed.
“Chris was the one who really sat me down and taught me about how it really is out here,” Pease says. “The first thing she told me when I got in the truck was that this job will make you grow up, will make you face problems you can’t back away from. You may go down the wrong road, but you have to keep going. I realized I could translate that into my everyday life.”
That mix of professional and personal guidance is the cornerstone of Stratton’s training style. She likes to call herself an “educator” instead of a “trainer.” She teaches her students that driving is psychological as much as physical, and keeps her cab stocked with self-help books.
“It’s not even just the mental part of driving. It’s having a good mental attitude on life, period,” she says. “If you are angry at life and you get in the truck, the little things will build up and it’s going to affect the way you drive.”
Though they no longer drive together, Stratton is still the first person Pease calls when he needs advice about the job or life in general. And he’s happy to return the favor and provide her with a sympathetic ear anytime.
“I’ve never really had a lot of people in my life give a damn about me,” he says.
“People like Chris who want to bond and connect and teach people — those kinds of trainers are few and far between. Looking back four years ago, I’m amazed at how much I’ve grown up because of her.”
Bridging the Gap
The enduring friendship between Stratton and Pease is unusual in an industry where veteran drivers and rookies often butt heads over everything from CB etiquette to cab amenities. New drivers say they don’t feel welcomed into the business with open arms by longtime drivers, and grow weary of extended rants about the way things used to be. Meanwhile, veterans tend to think that rookies rush into the job without taking the time to properly learn the ins and outs — and aren’t interested in guidance from their older counterparts.
“Any industry can have some sort of divide between newbies and old pros,” says Norita Taylor, spokesperson for the OOIDA. “It’s human nature, since no one likes to look as though they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Broach one of trucking’s hot-button issues with Stratton or Pease and they mostly agree with their respective generations — and disagree with one another.
“In those old trucks that I used to drive in with my dad, you felt everything,” Stratton says, echoing the complaints of many veteran drivers about advances in truck manufacturing. “Now trucks are so comfortable. A lot of new drivers don’t have a fear of the equipment. They treat them like cars.” And don’t get her started on GPS — her trainees rely on it far too much, she says, and too often it overrides their common sense and even gets them into scrapes.
Pease agrees GPS can be a menace, but can’t get onboard against innovation, a common position among his generation.
“I think new-school drivers have more of an open mind and an appreciation for technology,” he says good-naturedly. “They’re tools, and they are there for you to use, as long as you don’t solely depend on them. But, in general, times change and you have to learn to deal with it.”
But these differences in opinion, as fundamental to the job as they may be, do little to tarnish the friends’ respect for one another, and they take pains to be open to each other’s views. It’s an example all drivers, young and old, can learn from if they want to help heal the age-old divide.
“Both groups can let the pride for having chosen this way of life be the common bond,” Taylor says. “They can listen to each other and try to recognize who is sincere about being professional, regardless of age or experience.”
Pease is grateful that his experience with Stratton has taught him that he can always rely on the older generation to guide him along the road. “If I ever do need help, I’m not afraid to ask,” he says.
For her part, Stratton plans to keep bridging that gap by teaching the next generation for as long as she’s on the road.
“When my students get their own trucks, I see them stand taller and gain confidence,” she says. “That’s a sense of accomplishment for me. It’s like watching your children take their first steps.”