The Big Short

In trying times for road transport across many industry sectors, labour shortages are posing major challenges that are being dealt with differently.

A recent survey of young people in the United States found that one in four members of Generation Z plan on becoming social media influencers.

Nearly 16 per cent of those surveyed said they were prepared to pay to become one. Last year the American Trucking Association reported a shortage of 80,000 truck drivers, an all-time high that is anticipated to blow out to 160,000 by 2030.

Taken together these statistics shed some light on a very real rupture that has taken place between the service economy and the entertainment economy and the heightened generational incompatibilities deepening the separation of a digital existence from the physical world.

While there is never going to be enough careers to go around in the social media influencer category and more than enough holes to fill in the truck driver column, the gap is instructive of a mindset, however, fantastical, that won’t be narrowed by manpower until other realities, socioeconomic for one, hit home.

In Australia, skilled labour shortages are no less pronounced and the challenge of attracting younger workers to a rapidly ageing commercial road transport workforce never greater.

Road transport companies in Australia are facing unprecedented skilled worker shortages especially in the heavy vehicle operator and technician fields.

The Victorian Transport Association (VTA), which has been running a driver training program for three and a half years funded by the State Government, makes no pretense to indulging the grave demographic challenges that face the industry.

“Unless we can train young people to come into our industry, we’ll always be short on truck drivers,” says Peter Anderson, VTA CEO. “The issue we have is that we could be far more attractive as an industry if we were able to go to young people and talk to them about building a career.”

The driver training program the VTA currently superintends puts people behind the wheel for eight days — being taught under instruction of how to drive a truck properly as Anderson, who continues to be a vocal advocate for greater heavy vehicle driver training, describes it.

Victoria, he points out, at present has around 170,000 professional heavy vehicle drivers.

“We have a licensing system that puts over 18,000 a year through the licensing program,” he says. “There are no training programs, it’s a licensing program. And yet, we’re still three to five thousand truck drivers short in Victoria and it’s been like this for years.”

Peter Anderson, VTA CEO.

To date, the VTA has delivered over 200 heavy vehicle drivers to the industry.

“What the VTA is calling for, as is most of the industry, is for heavy vehicle drivers to be trained, and to be trained at 18 years of age,” he says.  But there’s also crucial optics involved, Anderson acknowledges, to achieving this.

“Who wants to come to an industry when you think you have to be either halfway in jail or halfway to being a drug addict to be part of the industry, because that’s the mentality that’s out there,” he says. “We keep reinforcing that because we don’t train people to drive trucks properly.”

National bulk carrier, McColls Transport, is headquartered in Victoria’s second biggest city Geelong.

Given its vast fleet requires a large driver and technician pool it’s also feeling the pinch of skilled labour shortages.

“Mechanics and drivers have been hard to find. Everyone is experiencing something similar across the industry,” says Peter Shearer, McColls Fleet General Manager. “We’ve been trying to introduce some younger drivers into the business. It’s more difficult for us these days having moved away from general freight.”

A time-honoured model from yesteryear was to start yard hands on forklifts and transition them onto a rigid truck ahead of eventually working their way up to a semi-trailer and heavier.

As McColl’s is primarily a tanker fleet these days there’s not as many rigids for its new staffers to access for intermediate training and experience before stepping up to prime movers.

In light of this, the company has devised an interesting workaround that is, on a smaller scale, proving effective. Across a couple of its depots, namely Dennington and the new site at Warrnambool, the newer staff members start out on the truck washbays before they are introduced to a single trailer licence.

Before long they build up enough experience and technical knowhow to pilot a B-double.

“Similarly with our depot in Nowra we have a couple of guys there who preload tanks for the drivers,” says Peter. “We’ve been using that as a way of introducing them to the business and a system to help them upgrade their licences.”

The onus is on drivers, ultimately, having a multi-combination licence says Peter, a former driver himself.

“In preference, 30 per cent of our fleet is still singles and the majority of the fleet is B-doubles,” he says. “Getting that MC licence is very important to us. It’s getting hard for the young guys to get a start. Everyone wants them with experience. A lot of young guys aren’t interested in transport which is a shame. I’m not sure how we fix that one. A lot of young guys don’t want to be away from the comforts of home. So that’s a difficult one that the industry is facing.”

Keeping drivers, in such a tough market, is of equal importance. To combat the driver retention challenge, McColls has taken to rewarding experienced operators with new trucks.

Recently, one of its longest-serving drivers, who was contemplating retirement, has agreed to stay on having been given a new MAN TGX for the next few years.

Across Sydney, major infrastructure projects, like the new airport, are in abundance.

Peter Shearer, McColls Transport.

Orbiting these projects is yet smaller but no less prioritised and fast multiplying commercial and housing developments.

For Vertex Allsands this activity will keep its revenue turning over into the future despite the issue of it finding fully qualified truck drivers. According to Michael Menon, Vertex Allsands Managing Director, the business is having to pay well over the going rate for more drivers which adds to inflationary costs for the business and the marketplace.

“In some way we’re fuelling the problem paying double to drivers for the same work they did just three years ago,” he explains. “Not to go too macroeconomic but that’s certainly part of the problem.”

Human Resources, as Michael views it, is a major component of operations in this current climate. Keeping the house in order is no longer the moveable feast it once was in commercial road transport.

“You’ve got to be pretty good to keep who you’ve already got,” Michael says. “That means having a pretty good setup to keep everyone happy especially your best drivers.”

Networking in an industry reliant on so many generational family and independent businesses with peer-to-peer reach also plays a pivotal role in recruitment. It has at Jarratt Transport Solutions, a Queensland-based carrier that recently hired four new truck drivers in an enviable short time frame.

One of the new employees is the son of a former driver, incidentally the longest serving driver in the company’s history. Another of the new additions is the colleague of one of the company’s original driving team, who shared with him knowledge that the business was adding several new Kenworth T610SARs.

“The other two called in one day by phone having just passed some of our trucks,” recalls Managing Director Phil Jarratt.

“We’d just ordered the vehicles so I said ‘yes’ and that’s how they came on board.”

Good fortune like a good reputation, doesn’t go astray. Neither does first class vehicles when it comes to landing top tier talent. According to Phil the fleet was never in a position where it didn’t have a driver ready for the arrival of the new trucks.

“We had drivers in place far enough in advance for when the trucks were delivered,” he says. “It was a period of a couple of months to get them together.”

Whether it’s by chance or by good management or a mix of the two, Phil understands adding four new drivers at once is the exception rather than the rule.

“Everybody’s experiencing driver shortages, there’s no secret about that,” he says. “We’re lucky we’re not looking for drivers, but I know plenty of guys that are. If I was buying trucks now, it would be a big push to make sure that we had drivers in place well in advance.”

Across the industry everyone is trying to do the best that they can with the resources and limited time they have been afforded.

“There’s no golden answer or silver bullet solution,” he says. “Everyone’s looking for staff across all industries, not just in transport.”

As the industry ages at a rate more than 2.2 times faster than all other industries, a steep cliff, replacing the learning curve politicians like to acknowledge, swiftly approaches.

Phil Jarratt, Managing Director Jarratt Transport Solutions, with wife Jodie.

Online employment advertiser Seek listed more than 21,000 jobs for truck drivers as recently as July. Peter Anderson wonders if these prominent vacancies amount to more than just a shortage of labour.

“Is there too many jobs? The transport and logistics industry reacts to demand and demand has undoubtedly gone up,” he says.

“[It’s] basic economics, supply and demand. The more people come into Victoria, the more demand there becomes, the more drivers we need. It’s a never-ending circle, we’ve always needed more drivers, we’ve always needed experienced workers. The sad part about it now is that we’re just inherently short and we can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”

South East Queensland Hauliers, whose tagline is, “innovate for tomorrow” just might see a faint glimmer. They are taking a slightly different approach to the problem. SEQH Deputy Managing Director, Nathan Craner, admits it’s near impossible to find an immediate fix for these staffing challenges.

The question he and his colleagues are asking is this: how can they take feasible action today so that it will impact the business positively in the future? Theirs is a different strategy that in abnegating the compromises so far arisen from short-term pressures looks well beyond the horizon.

“For the training side of things we are cognisant about innovating and not just for now but for the future,” he says. “There’s plenty of problems and plenty of challenges in every industry. We’re looking at the challenges that come our way and looking to solve them even if it means taking a long-term approach.”

Much discussion, not always with practical application, surrounds the endeavour to attract females to the industry at the minute.

When the opportunity arises, Nathan says SEQH is always seeking to talk to any female who has an interest in joining the business even offering part time and casual positions to better accommodate child-minding and school runs.

“In the early hours of the morning or late at night if they’re driving a truck, only if it’s for four hours, that might only be a short-term Band-Aid but you can potentially match people together and fill a truck for a 12 or 24 hour period,” he says.

“Though long-term, when those kids grow up and the household is more self-sufficient, you have potentially got a full-time available worker. You might get a part-time solution for tomorrow but in ten years’ time or 15-years’ time you’ve got someone who you have given some skills and experience and a career pathway to that will payoff down the track.”

Australia’s top peak food industry bodies have calculated the food supply chain is short at least 172,000 workers from paddock to plate. This massive labour shortage will have significant long-term impacts on price and the availability of food for the consumer unless solutions are found quickly. CEO of Independent Food Distributors Australia, Richard Forbes acknowledges the dire predicament the industry finds itself in.

“The ability to transport food is becoming harder by the day due the significant shortages of truck drivers across the country,” he says. “Coupled with that is an ongoing lack of skilled and unskilled workers in food warehouses to help pack and store food products and drive forklifts to unload trucks from suppliers and load them for food retail outlets. Recruiting and maintaining staff is almost impossible.”

The post-farmgate meat supply chain is already under-resourced to process the number of livestock forecast to be produced in Australia in 2022.

Forecasts for 2023-2025, according to Australian Meat Industry Council CEO, Patrick Hutchinson, can be anything between a 15-35 per cent increase in livestock numbers.

“This will obviously be catastrophic for Australian farmers if the volume of livestock is far greater than the meat processing industry can process, and the wider supply chain has the ability to manage,” he says.

In New South Wales agricultural workers are being offered fee-free heavy truck driver training and licencing courses under a $15 million program sponsored currently by the state government.

The additional training can be undertaken by anyone who presently works in the plant-growing agricultural industry sectors including grains, fibre, rice, viticulture, horticulture and agrifutures industries.

AgSkilled launched the program to upskill NSW’s plant-growing agricultural workforce as measure to help it meet future challenges.

The program, according to AgSkilled co-ordinator Claudia Vicary, has been an imperative part of strengthening the workforce across the NSW’s plant growing agricultural industries since its inception in 2017 and has generated opportunities to upskill workers and those seeking to build careers in the industry.

“Having staff on hand that can properly operate a heavy truck is integral to most farming enterprises, especially considering farmers have felt the pinch of workforce shortages over the last few years,” says Claudia.

“AgSkilled aims to deliver training that makes things easier on farm and we want to help growers make their businesses more dynamic and efficient through investing in their people.”

The truck driving and licensing course has been particularly popular for people on farm, who are busily preparing for the winter grains harvest and ensuring their staff have the capabilities and expertise to safely operate heavy trucks during this time.

The truck driver training and licencing courses are being run by Required Australian Industry Skills Education (RAISE) Training and Ironbark Training and will include competency-based assessment and licencing skillsets for heavy rigid (HR), heavy combination (HC) and multi-combination (MC) licenses.

The course ensures participants have the skills and knowledge required to drive a heavy vehicle safely, including maintaining systematic and efficient control of all vehicle functions; coupling and uncoupling trailers; monitoring traffic and road conditions; managing vehicle condition; and performance and dealing with hazardous conditions.

Claudia notes that these courses will be scheduled with participants based on demand.

“Courses will include online theoretical training and be completed with one-to-one delivery of the practical components, there would be a limit of two participants from each company per financial year with eligibility restricted to those working on-farm,” she says.

In New South Wales, Grains Research and Development Corporation is supporting AgSkilled.

AgSkilled is supported by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and other industry partners such as Cotton Australia, Horticulture Innovation, NSW Wine Association and Agrifutures. Productivity was high across NSW and seasonal conditions have growers excited for the winter harvest and summer cropping prospects according to GRDC Senior Regional Manager – North, Gillian Meppem.

“In seasons where high productivity is expected it follows that there will be increased pressure on harvest logistics, it’s important to ensure that the on-farm workforce can confidently and safely operate a truck during key busy periods such as harvest and sowing,” she says. “I strongly encourage all growers to look at their businesses and staffing and assess how they could take advantage of this great opportunity to upskill their workforce and increase their productivity.”

The road transport industry has for many decades struggled to attract and retain the heavy vehicle drivers of the future, and this will only continue in the absence of reform to heavy vehicle licencing and training according to Peter Anderson.

“There’s a lot of positives with driving a truck, but at the moment the negatives are outweighing those positives,” he says. “We’re not able to actually entice, draw and encourage people to come into our industry and join us because the system won’t let those people come at a time upon which they’re most likely to understand and learn – when they’re 18.”

For a system in desperate need of new ideas, the clock is ticking and it’s well past midnight. Part of the process of reform will mean, according to Peter, helping people train so that they can see the value and worth in becoming a truck driver.

“Imagine an 18-year-old earning $80,000 a year living at home,” he proposes.

“Don’t worry about Mum and Dad buying you an old $2,000 car, you’ll be able to buy your brand-new car, and the one you want. While all your mates are still at uni, and when they come out of uni at 22-23 years of age, they’ll be lucky to be earning $60,000 to $70,000 a year. You’ll have four or five years on them. You’ll have a deposit on a house while they’re still struggling with how they will do their internship. Then you can go on from there in the industry, you don’t have to stay as a truck driver.”

That’s a career trajectory that many in Generation Z can one day only dream of. It might also be true that to become a social media influencer a truck driver is not the worst place to start.

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