EDITORIAL: Trucking voice drowned out in war on skills

By: Jason Whittaker

The worsening shortage of skilled and semi-skilled personnel in the road transport sector is threatening to drive another wave of

The worsening shortage of skilled and semi-skilled personnel in the road transport sector is threatening to drive another wave of industry consolidation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the massive headaches operators are experiencing in recruiting and retaining staff, especially drivers, is forcing many small and mid-sized owner-operators to reconsider their futures in the industry — and offers to sell out that have previously been rejected.

Numerous operators recount similar stories, of going to great pains to recruit new drivers only to lose them quickly either to competitors or, more often than not, competing industries such as mining, at rates that simply can’t be matched.

The end result for many operators is either parking up trucks or being forced to jump behind the wheel themselves to complete deliveries. For business owners already working long hours juggling a growing number of operational issues — including increasingly complex and weighty compliance requirements — it’s simply not sustainable.

What’s especially frustrating is operators follow all the advice given by the HR experts. They pay rates above the industry average, they invest (as much as limited resources allow) in the latest equipment for their drivers, they offer (as much as the work allows) flexible work hours, and they even provide performance-based incentives, from cash bonuses for meeting certain KPIs to overseas holidays for stand-out employees.

All these initiatives work to some degree — but pale into comparison with the huge salaries on offer in the booming resources sectors in Queensland and Western Australia. Money talks and transport operators, with their slim margins, are having their voices drowned out.

More needs to be done at a government and industry level to increase the appeal of the transport and logistics sector, both to new workforce entrants as well as those in other sectors such as retail. There’s some very good work going on in isolation, such as programs developed by the Queensland and Victorian governments. But this is a national crisis and requires national action.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s recent speech listing skills shortages as the number-three priority in a five-point plan to tackle inflation is a step in the right direction. But his focus on the mining and construction sectors as the first in line to receive government training assistance highlights that the new Prime Minister and his administration do not understand the significance of the transport industry — and the severity of the labour shortages it is facing — to the national economy.

More in the January/February edition of ATN magazine, out next week.

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