Skilled truckies set to be dumped

RED TAPE: Gordon McDowall of McDowall Freight Ltd is in a battle with the government over his recruitment policy.
RED TAPE: Gordon McDowall of McDowall Freight Ltd is in a battle with the government over his recruitment policy.

A country-wide truck driver shortage is set to escalate with immigration changes sending the transport industry into panic mode.

Hundreds of overseas drivers working in New Zealand will be forced to return home when Immigration New Zealand removes truck driving from its Immediate Skill Shortage List (ISSL) in February, leaving transport operators short of experienced drivers, and putting road users at risk, transport operators say.

Immigration New Zealand figures show there are 403 overseas drivers working in New Zealand.

Southland's Gordon McDowall, of McDowall Transport Ltd, said overseas drivers made up about 15 per cent of his staff and some were already talking about having to leave the country when their visas expired.

"The Government is taking away a source of very experienced drivers and expecting us to be able to recruit the experienced drivers from within New Zealand and they are simply not there," he said.

NZ Truck Association business development manager Suzanne Hubball said the Government was "forcing" transport operators to employ and train drivers from the "unemployment queue" rather than recruit experienced overseas drivers.

While the association agreed it should employ New Zealanders first, recruiting into transport was difficult, she said.

"We have people with trucks parked up now because they cannot find drivers."

Transport operators had had bad experiences hiring from Work and Income, she said.

"You might have one out of 10 who are any good. Transport operators are expected to take all the risk in training - which costs $3500 for licences - only to find out the person is no good."

Hiring unsuitable drivers put operators at risk of losing ratings under the Government Operating Rating System (ORS), she said.

Mr McDowall said he had been sent Work and Income candidates so unsuitable he would not "hire them to push a wheelbarrow let alone a truck".

"[It was] their experience, presentation and whole attitude. I said, were [Immigration and Work and Income] prepared to take responsibility for the outcome if the people they were putting forward were let loose in a truck?

"It's not an industry someone can come into with no experience and you need to have the right attitude before you are let loose on a truck and trailer unit."

Forcing operators to hire unsuitable truck drivers would lead to a "dramatic" increase in road accidents, he said. Expanding business would also be hard.

"Right now I could have two trucks working but I have not got suitable drivers so they are just parked up . . . normally in New Zealand you don't get enough applicants to have a proper selection process and that's going to get seriously worse."

Summerland Express Freight Ltd owner Barbara Millard, of Cromwell, said operators were panicked at the prospect of losing overseas drivers.

"Drivers are hard to get now. A lot of good quality drivers have gone to Australia and we are also losing drivers to companies working on the Christchurch rebuild. . . .

"They can go and drive a gravel truck in the CBD for an extra $5-$8 an hour.

"That is what we are up against and there is no margin in freight to sustain those wages," Mrs Millard said.

"If they [cut truck drivers from the ISSL] we are not going to get those quality drivers that have worked in all terrains in Europe and have experience.

"It's a huge loss."

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said truck drivers were being removed because they had been on the list for "a number of years".

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment would work closely with the trucking industry for a year to identify skill needs and develop a plan for how to best meet those needs, he said.

Employers wanting to bring in migrant workers for occupations not listed on the Long Term Skill Shortage List (LTSSL) and the ISSL, or in the case of Canterbury, the Canterbury Skill Shortage List, could do so provided they had "genuinely searched for suitable qualified and trained New Zealand workers", he said.

The Essential Skills in Demand Lists were not the only options for migrants to enter and work in New Zealand, he said.

"If the trucking industry can still not find drivers once they come off the list, they will still be able to bring in temporary migrants, so long as they have looked and were unable to find suitable New Zealanders first to take those jobs."

In 2011 the Government introduced an accelerated scheme allowing drivers to progress more quickly to the heaviest classes through on the job training that would result in more experienced and safer new drivers, but the industry had been slow to take up the opportunity, he said.

Ms Hubball said the NZ Trucking Association and National Road Carriers had launched a petition calling on the Government to leave truck drivers on the ISSL and also add them to the LTSSL.

It contained nearly 600 signatures, she said.

The Southland Times