Destined to Drive - Gemma Pilbeam

By: Warren Aitken, Photography by: Warren Aitken


From a very early age, Gemma Pilbeam had a fascination with the trucking industry. Now she’s an experienced driver behind the wheel of a well-cared-for 2011 Western Star 4900.

Destined to Drive - Gemma Pilbeam
Gemma Pilbeam

I'm finally getting to start on my little pet project. I have been impatient to start a specific run of ‘Woman in Transport’ stories for quite a while now and I have finally found my first one. My editor has been behind me since I first voiced the idea. I have had numerous story ideas and options open to me and so there was only one hurdle left to overcome; my ability to get side-tracked, distracted, off topic, see, there I go again. Then I saw Frank Morgan Transport’s magnificent Western Star. Sitting behind the wheel of this stunning Western Star was the incredibly friendly Gemma Pilbeam. Two ‘Stars’ in one scene; how could I pass that up?

Gemma with her Western Star workhorse. Her attitude and drive is very infectious and a great sign for the future of trucking

Let’s deal with the bigger of the two stars first, obviously I’m being extremely literal in that comment. As mentioned before, Frank Morgan Transport runs the 2011 Western Star 4900 and has clocked up over 1.3 million kilometres with it so far.

Frank Morgan Transport is located out of Myrtlebank in Gippsland, Victoria and is the epitome of a rural transport business – small in numbers but massive in its impact. Frank runs six trucks, two T909s, a big cab Kenworth K108, an anniversary model Kenworth T601, an FM Volvo as well as the 4900 Star.

Frank began the company back in 2000 and as trucks were-added the diversity of the company just kept growing. He has stock trailers, flat tops and tankers. There literally is not any-thing that Frank will not cart. He keeps his locals well covered. In fact, when I arrived at his yard to meet the second star of his fleet, Gemma was busy tarping down a flat top load of bulk bags that she would be delivering to East Gippsland the next day. I dared not offer a hand, as I am sure that my tarping skills were well below the level Gemma was displaying. I politely waited until she was finished. We grabbed a cold drink and sat down to hear her story.

Well-schooled

Gemma Pilbeam was born and raised in Heyfield, Victoria. From as far back as she can remember she would tag alongside her father when he went off to work. "Dad was a diesel mechanic for a logging company," Gemma says. "I used to go to work with dad and I always said to him I was going to drive a log truck when I grew up." I tried to get a rough ‘guesstimate’ on her age at that stage. Gemma freely admitted that she was extremely young. "I’ve always been with dad; I was daddy’s little girl."

Gemma’s favourite Star is all ready for her to head off and unload. Her trusty stock crates sit ready for her to hook back up to on her return

Gemma grew up in and around trucks. After school, during the holidays; anytime she could she would be down learning and helping. When she was old enough to reach the pedals she was even moving the trucks in and out of the workshop for her dad.

"I remember walking to school and seeing an old Western Star, it used to do the mill run and I would think, ‘I’m going to do that one day’," she recalls. Both Gemma and her parents figured she would eventually grow out of the fascination, but we all know that once trucking has a grasp on you, you are hooked.

By the time Gemma finished Year 12 her mum had convinced her to get a job in nursing. She applied, got accepted and was due to start her course in February, which was just a couple of months after school finished. If only the course had started earlier, who knows what could have happened – transport may have lost one of its brightest young recruits. Instead, just a week after being let out of school Gemma picked up a job for a local contractor. The jaws of transport had grabbed her, and nursing was going to miss out.

Her first job was behind the wheel of a roller. "I hated that!" Gemma freely admits now, but it was a step in the door. "Being a girl I didn’t know if anyone would, you know, have any faith in me."

Flashback: Five year-old Gemma hanging out with her father Glen Pilbeam

That roller did not last long. Her attitude and skills soon saw her moved up to a grader. Responsible for working on many of the shire roads, it was another step towards her goal of driving trucks. Soon enough, Gemma got her first driving work in that company. A single drive tilt tray. It wasn’t long then before she was upgraded to a bogie drive tilt tray. Even at that stage though, Gemma had her eyes on a Kenworth and float trailer. Gemma remembers being told by her boss, "When you can load a 20-tonne excavator by yourself then you can try the float" to which she replied, "Fine, that’s what I’m going to do then." She did too.

Licensed to haul

Gemma learnt how to drive, load and chain down the big excavator, then the keys to a Kenworth T408 were hers. At just 19 years old it had taken a special permit for Gemma to get her HC license only a year after gaining her HR. "I was delivering equipment on the float before I even had my full car licence," Gemma tells me. A lesson in determination and commitment to your passion shows anything is possible.

Gemma admits she learned a lot in that job, spending almost four years doing heavy haulage work, but also learning how to deal with a little bit of industry jealousy as well. She admits as a young woman doing a job that many guys wanted, she copped a bit of flack. Credit to her resolve though, instead of buckling under, it just made her more determined to do a good job.

A chance encounter at a local weighbridge with another local, Shannon Smith of Gippsland Logging & Earthmoving, led to Gemma finally fulfilling her childhood goal. "If you’re ever interested in driving a logger, let me know," Shannon told her. Summoning all her cliché Australiana, her reply was, "You ripper!"

I’m a terrible passenger but had a ball as I sat back and watched Gemma do all the work

With the keys to a yet another Kenworth 401, this one with a jinker in tow, Gemma took to logging like a duck to water. I could have said like an activist to a tree, but it just seemed inappropriate. It was no easy track into logging either (pun intended). Gemma was straight into the hardwood logging, getting in and out of places not originally designed for trucks like hers.

"It was good to start off in the little truck," Gemma admits. "Just to get the feel of how to do it, load the logs on and tie them down."

Her natural abilities saw her promoted to a B-double with a T909 in front, the 402’s big bonneted brother. For Gemma this was the pinnacle, this is what she had been chasing. Her alarm clock was going off half an hour before midnight, so she would be up in the bush ready for her first load. Tackling the kind of roads that saw you spending an hour and a half to cover a mere 35 kilometres, it was heaven to this hard-working young truckie.

"People always ask me why I like driving a log truck," Gemma says. "There’s no better feeling than coming out of the bush, crawling up a hill with a load of logs on and the morning’s breaking. People just don’t get it."

Gemma also recalls a moment when she first moved up to B-doubles. "There’s a sign on the way out by Corryong that says, ‘Caravans not permitted’ and you are in a fully loaded B-double. It’s strange but pretty cool at the same time."

For Gemma, it was a dream job, fulfilling her childhood goal. As she got older (I use that term loosely as she’d hadn’t even hit her 25th birthday) Gemma felt the need to spend more time at home. The logging had her traveling far and wide, and away from home. She even spent time carting pine out of South Australia.

Carting livestock

When she started building a house back in Heyfield she took the opportunity to chase another item left on her bucket list – stock. When you think ‘chasing stock’ I’m not making a Kiwi joke. Carting livestock was another of the challenges Gemma had set herself.

"When I was 19 I’d done a couple of loads for Frank [Frank Morgan Transport] and I told him, ‘One day I’m going to drive one of your trucks’. When I heard one of his drivers had left I went and saw him," Gemma relates. Another example of how strong Gemma Pilbeam’s word really is. It was five years since she had first made that comment to Frank but in the end she was right.

The keys to the day cab Western Star were handed in and Frank gave Gemma the keys to her first sleeper cab truck – the still very cool 4900 Star you see before you.

Getting into the B-double work saw Gemma getting some pretty big logs, I mean loads

Gemma’s ability to take on information, mixed with her home-grown common sense saw her spend just a few days under Frank’s guidance before she was off on her own. She was mastering another challenging area of the industry, carting livestock.

"I found that the livestock took a bit of time to get into a routine," Gemma tells me. "They are so different, are they shorn, are they not shorn, are they broken, are they not, whereas with the logs you just threw them on and they’d be fine."

There was a settling-in period for Gemma and in her usual humble style she is the first to credit others for assisting her along the way. "Pete who works here, he’s 63 I think, he’s been doing livestock all his life and is absolutely amazing at his job. I was super lucky to learn the ropes from Pete." She also made it clear the Pete could still at his age very easily run rings around her.

With stock not being a year-round job at Frank Morgan Transport it gave Gemma the opportunity to learn more skills in the transport industry. Loading wool, tarping, bulk bags – Frank was there to help Gemma upskill.

"I guess the hardest part about this job as a woman is loading the wool; I wish I was a bit stronger," Gemma laughingly admits. I admit I’ve done that myself; it’s not just a gender issue. By the time you hit that third layer I was wishing I was the Hulk. However, it hasn’t stopped her mastering everything from bails of wool to tighter-than-tight tarp jobs.

Mother and son

If you needed any-more proof of Gemma’s dedication to trucking, look no further than 2019. That was the year Gemma became pregnant. She chose not to tell anyone, as she did not want to be treated any different. "I worked right up until about three weeks before Will arrived," Gemma confesses.

The arrival of little Will Pilbeam at first made her reassess her career path, admitting that she did think about settling down and getting a different kind of job. Thankfully that did not take. "Now that Will’s a bit older and I can take him with me; I’ve found a new lease of life for it again and I want to show Will all of that."

Gemma finishes off a tidy tarp job

Balancing the mum life with the diesel addiction has seen Gemma come back to work in several roles. I caught up with her on one of the several days a week she works for Frank. She also does a couple of night shifts back on logs for an owner-driver and, when she’s free, she’ll work on a mate’s dairy farm. The workload she carries says more about Gemma’s attitude and work ethic than any of my words could. Although it was once driven by her love of trucks and the transport industry, now Gemma admits her driving force is to make the best life possible for her son. She is setting an amazing example.

While this story is covering the whole ‘Women in Trucking’ angle, it became apparent in our chat that, gender aside, it was just a couple of truck mad ‘nutters’ enjoying a cuppa and a chat. Like the majority of us, Gemma can remember her days walking down the street seeing trucks driving by and just feeling that pang of jealousy that it was not her behind the wheel.

Gemma has never shied away from any of the challenges of the industry. "If you’re going to do a job, you’ve got to do all of it – the bad and the good. It’s not all the shiny stuff," she tells me, referring to the countless tyres that she has had to change and the roadside repairs she’s undertaken.

DSC_1212.jpg

But it’s all part of the job, according to Gemma. This ‘all in’ approach to her work is something she gives credit to her mum and dad, Glen and Lynette. "I was just brought up with the fact if you have to do it you just get in and do it."

Being a woman in a male dominated industry has not diminished Gemma’s love of the job. It seems her natural respect for the industry and those already in it, as well as her work ethic and skills, has seen her garner respect from all those she interacts with. She is extremely happy to listen to the older experienced drivers and take on board what she finds useful. That is not to say she hasn’t had her fair share of CH40 comments. "There’s not really much that gets to me; I’ve heard it all before," Gemma says. "It’s horrible, it really is, but you can’t let it get to you." Instead Gemma lets her actions speak for themselves.

Although she stated, "I don’t think I’m very interesting", a couple of times during the interview, I have to disagree. Gemma has a very enviable driving record now, building up a reputation for hard work, admitting that she continues to be-driven by harder and more difficult challenges.

It seems my first ‘Woman in Transport’ story shines a light on a young lady that sets the bar for all those in trucking. So thank you very much Gemma, for finding the time to sit and talk with me. With your workload and drive, it’s much appreciated. And it was a pleasure to photograph two great Stars.

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