Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Diesel Technician Bella Hampton poses for a portrait in at US Express's facility on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021 in Tunnel Hill, Georgia.

Bella Hampton knew she had a knack for all things mechanical, but she never imagined she'd get to turn her tendency to take things apart into a career.

"I was raised extremely conservative, and there was not a whole lot my parents expected from me," says Hampton, 27, who has been a diesel technician in the U.S. Xpress maintenance facility in Tunnel Hill, Georgia, for two years.

The single mother of two boys, Hampton stepped straight into her role in January 2020 after completing a year of training at Chattanooga State Community College. She's one of just a few women working in the U.S. Xpress network of 15 shops in the eastern half of the U.S.

"It's uncommon, but you're starting to see a lot more women entering the industry," says Morgan Dolan, a senior recruiting manager for U.S. Xpress who focuses on filling shop roles and corporate maintenance jobs.

There are about 400 people working in U.S. Xpress shops, with another 50 open positions, and fewer than 10 women in those ranks, Dolan says.

"It's always exciting when we get to give them an offer and they get to thrive," Dolan says.

Demand for both drivers and the people who keep big rigs running has always been high, but the visibility of those roles has been elevated during the pandemic, says Jessica Green, interim dean of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Chattanooga State.

"I think the nation is more aware of it because we're finally being affected by it," Green says. "It's something people have known about, and it's been the case for years, but now we're seeing empty shelves in our grocery stores."

Photo Gallery

How the need for skilled diesel technicians fueled Bella Hampton's drive

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the need for diesel technicians will grow about 8% through 2030, and the retirements of large numbers of older drivers and technicians has added to industry shortages, Dolan adds.

"It's a little bit like the housing market where it's a buyers' or sellers' market," she says. "We are in an applicant market, and we have to make sure we are selling them on us. It's always been difficult, but I will say it's the most difficult market I've been in the recruiting realm since I started."

For Hampton, the need for skilled diesel technicians created opportunity that changed her life. The Dalton, Georgia, native was married and a mother within a year of finishing high school in 2012, and her husband worked as a diesel technician to support their family.

"I knew what's expected of me is marriage and raising kids, and what's expected of him was work and raise his family," Hampton says.

But she had grown up in a family of mechanics, and she had a knack for tinkering.

"I was always into turning wrenches," Hampton says. "As a kid, I took my TV apart and put it back together, an old box TV. My mom was like, 'We don't do that, that's not what ladies do.'"

She was adopted by her mother's husband in childhood, and didn't establish a lasting relationship with her biological father until she was 18. But he was a diesel technician, and she spent the first years of her life tagging along after him, Hampton recalls.

"Some of my earliest memories are playing in the junkyard where he worked," Hampton says. "He had me helping him, 'Go get this, go get that.' I didn't know what I was doing, I just thought it was fun."

Bella Hampton

* Age: 27

* Role: Diesel technician for U.S. Xpress

* Family: Two sons, 6 and 9

Her husband and his grandfather also worked on big rigs, and when she decided in 2017 to end her marriage, that was the career that appealed to her the most, Hampton says. Even as they separated, her husband sold her his tools to help her get started, and his grandfather backed her at every step, Hampton says.

"All through college, he had my back, he's been a mentor," she says. "Larry Hampton has been the No. 1 person in my corner through all this."

Some members of her family haven't come around to the idea that she can do this work, but others have been supportive and encouraging, including her adoptive father, Hampton says. She tells them she's not trying to be anything she's not, Hampton adds.

"I know I'm not a man," she laughs. "I'm just a hard-headed woman."

Brian Bishop, a shop supervisor in Tunnel Hill, calls Hampton a "little ball of fire," and points out that she's been promoted twice in two years.

The work is "addicting," Hampton says, and she is able to provide for her sons, who are 9 and 6 years old, in a way that lets her give them things she grew up without, she adds.

"I never thought I would be in a three-bedroom house by myself with my two boys," Hampton says. "We always get the school photo packages. There's no school photos of me, but we always get the school photos."