Solving the Skills Shortage

The promotion of vocational training and its benefits is part of the role of Paul Walsh who is helping to create clearer pathways for young and old alike to work within the road transport industry.

Australian Industry Standards (AIS) is focused on future skilling Australia’s workforce through working in partnership with industry, the vocational education and training sector, and governments. Paul Walsh is the CEO and is himself a former truck owner-driver.

Prime Mover: What got you into training?
Paul Walsh: When I finished driving, I moved into operations and then training and was the National Training Manager at TNT for a couple of years. About ten years ago it was suggested to me to work in the skills area which I’d always had an interest in. I wanted to be more involved in developing people and training opportunities. I’d taken on some nationally recognised training myself at one point in my driving career, and that set me on a path of undertaking a few more vocational qualifications to build my business skills and understand management processes.

PM: What’s a brief overview of AIS’s goals?
PW: We create vocational qualifications which people can then use to recognise or develop their skills and knowledge. Part of our job is to actually promote vocational training and its benefits. We work in the transport industry and we also support the energy industry and there is a lot of synergy between the two. There may be different kinds of occupations but ultimately, it’s about skills and supporting people and supporting businesses. If they’ve got skilled people businesses are more productive.

PM: What are some of the steps in improving skills?
PW: When I was at TNT we put a lot of people through vocational skills training. The transport industry typically has a lot of people who have never completed any vocational qualification, and some who have never completed high school. The first step was giving them recognition of the skills they have, which can be massive because many of them under-rate themselves and they just assume they were never good enough to finish school. By recognising their skills, whether it’s an equivalent trade level qualification at Cert III, or a more advanced qualification such as a Cert IV or a diploma, when they get awarded a qualification, they realise they actually have valuable skills. Not everyone wants to go to the next step, but it does create opportunity for people to consider what else they can do in their career.

PM: Why is road transport suffering so much from a shortage of people?
PW: I think it’s a couple of different reasons. We’ve been reporting driver shortages in the industry for as long as I care to remember but we’ve been able to manage the freight task in spite of that. However, we’ve had a unique set of circumstances brought on by COVID where suddenly it’s become critical. We rely on migrant workers in the transport industry and they went home. We had a growing freight task anyway, then COVID comes along and operators are parking trucks up because they can’t get drivers. We’ve also had the exponential increase in the freight task because consumers demanded change and want home delivery. Suddenly we’ve got a new set of job requirements for that last mile and it’s put a real microscope on this issue and we haven’t got enough people. Migration is one answer but it’s a short-term fix. It’s a part of the solution but we also need to look at how we skill people for jobs now and create future opportunities for them as jobs change. The heavy vehicle driver apprenticeship is not a panacea either. There is a combination of factors which needs to be put in play to make a difference, but each factor can impact and drive change. We try to be very clear in the messaging we’ve done around the apprenticeship that this is part of the solution, but it’s not the total answer.

PM: The US reports annual driver turnover of around 89 per cent. Will an apprenticeship in Australia keep people in industry?
PW: That’s a recruitment nightmare and it’s a different market to ours’. My observation of the local industry is that typically once people come in, they tend to stay. There’s always going to be an attrition rate, but typically people stay within the industry because for many it’s a way of life, they like the culture of the industry and once they are in and have got through the first couple of years, they tend to hang in.

PM: What of the issue of the ageing workforce?
PW: Depending upon the statistics you look at, the average age is somewhere between 50 and 56. That’s a number that isn’t shifting and it’s telling us that for truck driving it’s often a career that people will pick up as a second or third or fourth or even fifth career. The average age is likely to remain high and obviously we’re all living longer so we’re staying in the industry longer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but we do need to encourage younger people into the industry.

Paul Walsh.

PM: What about the physical demands?
PW: When my father was driving trucks it was tough work and could give your body a bit of a beating. A lot of that has changed. It can still be pretty tough, but the equipment in today’s trucks, and the methods we use for manual handling have improved a lot, so the job is a lot more sympathetic to the driver than in the past.

PM: Should there be a stronger focus on recruiting 30- or 40-year-olds instead of younger people?
PW: People will often go off and try different things but by their late 20s or 30s they join the transport industry for an opportunity or they change careers because the industry they were in has gone through change. These people are attractive to our industry because they bring a lot of transferrable skills and can be upskilled quickly. The other issue we often hear reported from industry is around the gap between school and truck driving, because there isn’t a clear pathway. They get out of school, go and do something else and then the industry has to try to attract them to join. One way of addressing that is the heavy vehicle driver apprenticeship which creates the pathway from school into industry. There is a way to do that even with the current graduated licensing scheme and various state associations are prosecuting that argument about changing to competency-based progression, which I support. We have a national vocational skills framework that is designed to assess the skills they’ve have, and to train and assess for the rest of the skills they will need. It’s important to note now that there is no push at this stage to mandate the apprenticeship to enter the industry. Let’s see if this starts to attract a new cohort and begins to make a difference. The underpinning aim is to demonstrate this is a professional career and is recognised as such. Some states are trialling arrangements where they are creating an entry pathway into a driving job where you do elements of the qualification to get you job-ready and working. From there you can continue into doing the whole of the apprenticeship qualification over time while you are on the job.

PM: Does the female gender provide an opportunity?
PW: Women make up less than four per cent of the truck driving workforce and that’s a huge opportunity when we need more drivers. Anything we can do as an industry to bring more women into the workforce is a really good thing for all of us. Women can change the dynamic in the workplace and the industry. They make great drivers and are often a lot more sympathetic on the equipment. There are fantastic careers in this industry and it’s not just truck driving. Jobs are going to change over the next five, ten, or 20 years which brings massive opportunities. The industry just needs to get the word out on how good it is.

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