Women in Waste series: Erin Johnson
Erin Johnson has never been afraid to take on ‘men’s work’. From pipe-laying and road grading to driving heavy-duty trucks, Erin has stepped up to the challenge, despite the cynicism of others.
“Because I’m a woman, people have assumed I couldn’t or didn’t want to do that type of work,” she said. “I’ve even been called horrible names – it’s been really hard at times.”
Growing up in Nova Scotia, she left high school and entered the workforce at a young age. Her first job was a traffic controller in the road construction industry.
“It paid well,” she explained. “I wanted financial independence for myself so I was more concerned about the pay than the job.”
When her position ended in layoff, Erin moved to Ontario, where she was immediately hired in the same field.
Eager to impress and keep her job, Erin started to seek out extra training. She begged her manager for the opportunity to learn new skills, so she was trained in pipe-laying and road grading. When the company desperately needed someone to operate their compactor, with no obvious candidates, Erin stepped up.
Her keen attitude and willingness to train was paying off and for a time, she was moving forward.
But it all came crashing down when an injury forced her out of her job. For the first time in her life, Erin found herself out of work, unable to provide for herself and dependent on Employment Insurance (EI).
“I was just desperate to get my independence back,” she said. “That’s when I heard about a government driver training program that would allow me to collect EI and go back to school.”
Erin successfully graduated from the program with her AZ, Excavator and Heavy Equipment licenses, and the hope of operating an excavator. However, several unsuccessful interviews later her goal seemed beyond reach and she still needed to find work.
Determined to use her new skills, Erin decided to take a different route and try a position in long-haul driving. But life on the road quickly took its toll.
“I worked various runs across North America, doing up to three trips a week, so I was only home five days a month,” she said. “It became hard and as a single woman, I knew I wanted more for my life.”
After a tough year-long stint as a long-haul driver, Erin knew it was time for a change. Unsure what to do next, she decided to move home to Nova Scotia and pursue a path that was more fulfilling.
It was then that she saw an entry-level waste driver job advertised with GFL in Halifax. Intrigued by the opportunity and with nothing to lose, she applied.
At her interview, Erin met Karen Odegard, a fellow female driver who had entered the profession under similar circumstances to her own. Erin found it hugely encouraging to see how much Karen had achieved during her time with the company.
“It made such a difference to me, seeing a woman at GFL who had succeeded and grown her career,” she said. “I feel that women need to empower one another, and I was happy to see GFL doing this.”
At the time GFL was hiring seasonally, but Erin made such a positive impression that she was offered permanent full-time work right away. And from day one, she displayed the same keen, can-do attitude that had served her so well throughout her working life. She was committed to her job, travelling over an hour to work and back each day. She showed how much she loved her work, and, as before, that she was willing to step in where others wouldn’t.
So when an opportunity for a commercial front-load truck driver arose, she put herself forward.
“At first I was reluctant, as I had a lot of people tell me I couldn’t do it,” she recalls. “But I pushed through, got out of my head and said ‘Screw it! I’m going to try’.”
Within six months of hire with GFL, Erin had progressed from entry-level driving to a complex, physically-demanding and high-stress front-load position that added an extra $10,000 to her annual paycheque. For someone who had once struggled from job to job, Erin’s determination, hard work and positivity had finally landed her where she wanted to be.
“I credit my success at GFL to my keen drive, eager work ethic and a sheer determination to be independent,” she said. “I’m always willing to learn something new, so that keeps me interested.”
It’s this mentality that has, quite literally, driven Erin to where she is today. She now has a job she loves that challenges both her body and mind. She’s moved to Halifax, set down roots, has a new boyfriend and enjoys the life she’s always craved.
She still believes that there are misconceptions keeping women out of the professional transportation industry, but that things are beginning to change.
“Many women don’t realize that companies like GFL will train you so long as you have the work ethic, and you can make really good money driving,” she said. “And once you master backing up, everything else is straightforward!”