Employer attitudes key to solving driver shortage

The driver shortage in the road freight transport industry is well known. Since I started at the Road Transport Forum (RTF) just over a year ago, many operators have talked to me about the shortages they face in securing drivers to enable them to run their businesses effectively. Trucks are often parked up and there is a lack of choice that was once enjoyed when recruiting staff.

Our industry isn’t unique in this dilemma. An ageing population is taking its toll on our workforce, across New Zealand and the developed world. We’ve seen it coming for many years.

The world has changed and we are living in a period where there is fierce competition to secure an able, skilled and qualified workforce. Pay, conditions, and investment in training all play a part in workers making choices about jobs, and careers. Can they see a future, is there a path to promotion, management, or business ownership?

There is a stark contrast I’ve detected as I move around the country; the differences between companies that are short of drivers and those who are not. Everyone says it’s an issue for the industry, but not every operator faces it as a direct challenge in their business. Why is this? Well, for a start it appears employer attitude and commitment to staff play a big part.

I was on a regional visit recently and I met two operators one after the other. The first one had a diverse workforce, including many women drivers and an average age that was probably 15 years younger than the industry average. The team was enthusiastic about their work and genuinely committed to the company that paid them well and invested in them gaining skills and qualifications. The staff were the best ambassadors for gaining new drivers; the company literally had a waiting list of people wanting to start with them.

Another company I visited, justifiably complained about their inability to get drivers and asked about what the RTF was doing about it. When I asked how many women drivers they had working for them, they told me they didn’t like employing women because they got pregnant and they also had reservations about ethnic groups. Further revelations indicated they were a fairly poor payer compared to some of the competition. I told them that the RTF can advocate and it can help set up opportunities for the industry, but ultimately, the solution to the workforce shortage lies in every business having the right attitude to its potential workforce and making changes to shifts, pay, education and safety that better attracts a new generation of drivers.

It’s really easy to blame everyone else for a shortage, whether it be Government or whoever, but I firmly believe the solution to our industry shortages lie with us.

So how do we overcome this?

The RTF has to provide a structure for better supporting businesses to attract workers. This isn’t an overnight solution and it will take time, but I want to signal to the industry that we are aware of this issue and that this year, we hope to announce a cadetship that will begin to usher in a new generation of workers.

The good news is the industry has started putting in place the framework to support a cadetship and there are operators who want to invest in their teams’ skillsets and qualifications.

For a start, all the associations and the RTF have been involved in creating a Workforce Development Strategy with MITO. This will lead to a national action plan for which the RTF will be the primary co-ordinating body.

You can look at the very readable strategy here.

This strategy is also backed up by qualifications that operators should be focussing their staff on obtaining. The New Zealand Certificate in Commercial Road Transport Skills (Level 3) and the New Zealand Certificate in Commercial Road Transport (Heavy Vehicle Operator – Level 3), are available this year.

Once the industry demonstrates an appetite for investing in qualifications and skills, we will be in a better position to demand more support from Government. The woeful enrolments of industry workers in MITO qualifications needs to improve in 2020 if we have any chance of showing that we are serious about tackling industry shortages. Potential and current employees need to see they are valued and that their skills will be invested in by their employers. Otherwise, those five staff members you will be losing to retirement in the next three years, won’t be replaced as young people go where they are wanted.

Specific course information is here.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Shaping work-based training important for our industry’s future

Heralded as a new dawn for work skills and training, there were a lot of words in the polytechnic and industry training reform announcements from the Government last week, but not a lot of detail for us to work with.

Being an optimist, this could be seen as a good thing. Our sector needs to recognise that change is coming and be positive and constructive about that. What are the legacy components of work-place based training and skills that we want to preserve, and what can we improve on so that more people engage with our industry?

As an industry with worker shortages, we are all about industry training. It is hard to see these announcements enhancing the relationship between government, education providers and industry, but we are willing to keep an open mind and we hope to be consulted on how road freight transport can benefit from future vocational education changes. We would be keen to see where we fit in the Workforce Development Councils, but at the moment, we have more questions than answers.

We made a submission on the proposed reforms and we were clear that we support the goal of rationalising the vocational training and education sector so that all qualifications and the way they are delivered are the same.

However, where we have landed thus far feels like we are looking at the same regime with different titles and management structures – with a strong injection of the unions – to deliver the same outcomes.

We question if the cost to the taxpayers and the disruption to both learners and those working in vocational education and training are worth it, if it is the same wheel, reinvented with a different look only. And we believe unionism should remain voluntary, not become compulsory.

Our industry recognises the very real issues the Education Minister is grappling with. We can also see why it is tempting to group the efficient and effective Industry Training Organisations (ITO) in with a total change. However, in our submission, we suggested the ITOs – which make up just 6% of tertiary funding – should not be reformed currently. We contended that could be assessed later, once changes to polytechnics are bedded down and the benefits evaluated.

In our view, the key outcomes of the reform should be to:

  • Create an attractive regime that addresses inequity and inequality
  • Have industry driven and guided training and qualifications
  • Create a system that end users want to participate in
  • Create world leading and integrated vocational education

Our view was there was strength in ITO model because it was industry-led, industry-governed and therefore, responsive to the needs of industry.

I was recently appointed to the MITO Board and attended my first meeting this week. It is fair to say that in an environment of disruption and an information void, sustaining interest in training programmes and keeping good people could be a challenge.

While we wait to see what shape future training will take, we are focused on finding industry-led solutions and the Road Transport Forum has taken responsibility for future development of the Sector Workforce Engagement Programme (SWEP). This means we can look at education and training in the areas most likely to be a source of future employees.  RTF is keen to see a formalised industry-led cadetship programme developed that has clear parameters and appropriate levels of recognition and opportunities for cadets.

We are also supportive of the MITO’s ShiftUp programme, that offers secondary school students learning opportunities in the road transport industry, with credits towards NCEA and an introduction to the workplace. That programme was launched this year.

It is always good to look to the future, but you also need to keep one eye on the now. We have to be careful that as this Government looks to a fossil-fuel free, carbon neutral, highly automated (driverless trucks), “knowledge economy” with no one in the trades and no need for immigration, that we remember that is all some way off. We need drivers now so that the supermarkets don’t run out of food, the hospitals don’t run out of medicine, and the economy, although slowing, can continue to provide us with our unique Kiwi way of life.

– Nick Leggett – CEO, Road Transport Forum