The American trucking industry is undergoing a major demographic change — and the Sikh population is leading the way.
The Economist reports that the political group Sikhs PAC estimates there are 150,000 Sikhs in the trucking industry and that nearly 90 percent of those people work as drivers, In addition to that, nearly 20,000 Sikhs have been joining the industry each year.
The history of Sikhs in the North American trucking industry goes back several decades. The trucking news site Overdrive points to the 1980s as a turning point for truck drivers. That’s when a generation of Sikh families arrived in the United States escaping anti-Sikh tensions in India. SikhsPAC chairman Gurinder Singh Khalsa told Overdrive in February that Sikh entrepreneurs at the time saw trucks as a way to find steady work and move up the ladder to own their own businesses one day. That, along with the fact that many Sikhs worked in trucking in South Asia, made the transition to the United States easier.
“There was an effort then to penetrate the trucking industry, where a strong work ethic made trucking a good path,” Khalsa said. “Once we became business owners, we could not only provide for our families but also stay faithful to our beliefs.”
But as the number of Sikh drivers and company owners grew, stereotypes about Sikh traditions and the turbans the drivers wore persisted. Industry experts say that has begun to change in recent months in large part due to truckers coming together to protest mandated electronic logging devices. As trucker and organizer Scott Reed told Overdrive, the collective efforts showed “the cultural diversity among truckers. … You got the American-bred boy trucker standing there right next to the guy that came from India … fighting together. To see the way that took place, learning from each other – we broke some stereotypes down there.”
Signs also point to the Sikh influence growing in the years to come. What was once considered a steady blue collar job in the United States has undergone major changes in recent years and the American Trucking Associations warned that this could mean the United States could be short of 174,000 workers by 2026. Many trucking companies report a 90 percent turnover rate annually and many younger workers say they want to pursue work in more stable industries (with steadier schedules). The Economist notes that this could mean that the Sikh community members in the industry could fill the gap when it comes to the shortage of truckers.
But while we are likely to see even more Sikh drivers on the road in the years to come, one South Asian tradition has yet to make the jump to North America: We have yet to see any colorfully decorated trucks on our local highways.