Licencing and migration reform essential for future

A recurring theme on these pages from myself and other transport industry groups in recent times has been the challenges of chronic labour shortages and their impact on already stressed supply chains, and the operators tasked with keeping them functioning.

The pandemic exposed just how vulnerable the whole country is to worker shortages. For two years, border closures and mandatory isolation for anyone with Covid and their close contacts put pressure on service delivery right across the country. And despite borders opening, and pretty much every Covid restriction abolished, the lag effect means it will take time to catch up and for our labour supply to keep pace with demand.

For the freight industry, this of course is nothing new.

Ours is an industry that has grappled with labour shortages long before Covid-19 arrived in Australia because of a combination of an aging workforce and the challenges we have long faced of attracting new people to work in freight and logistics.

The structural problem of solving the problem from a long-term perspective, and to start to reverse the age profile of heavy vehicle drivers, is being tackled by the VTA and other industry groups in a number of ways.

Firstly, our licencing system in Victoria and elsewhere is old and antiquated and inappropriate for the transport industry in the 21st century. It rewards experience over qualifications and must be overhauled to attract young, highly trained people to long-term careers in transport. 

The VTA is leading advocacy for this reform. We want to see 18-years-olds behind the wheel of heavy vehicles, but only after receiving comprehensive practical training and instruction, thus putting them on a career path to a satisfying and financially rewarding profession as a driver. The days of transport work being just a job are over, and as an industry we must portray driving and other transport work for what it is – a profession.

The Victorian Government is recognising the value of more comprehensive training through its support of a number of VTA programs. 

Our Driver Delivery program provides eight days of hands-on instruction and has placed hundreds of new skilled drivers in transport roles since it commenced around four years ago. More recently, the Freight Industry Training for Jobseekers Project is providing direct pathways for women to fill 125 freight and logistics roles through VTA-sponsored heavy vehicle, forklift and warehousing training, followed by job placement and support.

The evolution of these programs must be reformation of the heavy vehicle driver licencing system to prioritise qualifications and training, which we will fiercely continue to advocate. This structural reform will take time, so in the interim we need creative solutions to attract qualified heavy vehicle drivers.

One such solution the VTA has been pushing is for the Commonwealth Government to add heavy vehicle driver to Australia’s Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List.

Recently, the National Skills Commission published its 2022 Skills Priority List, with “truck driver (general)” included as one of 129 occupations that weren’t considered to be in shortage is 2021, but apparently now is. 

The list simply confirms what everybody in transport has been saying for years about driver shortages– that truck driver (general) has been added to the list won’t change a thing. 

For Australia to attract competent and qualified heavy vehicle drivers from overseas in the short-term, we need to change our skilled migration program to prioritise this occupation over others. Absent is the understanding by the statutory road bodies in every state of the value of this classification.

For example, the National Skills Commission Key Findings Report confirmed occupation shortages were most acute in Professional and Skill Level Category 3 occupations among Technicians and Trade Workers. Heavy Vehicle Driver is a Skill level category 4 occupation and does not thereby qualify for direct migration and Visa support.

Re-categorising heavy vehicle driving as a Skill Level Category 3 occupation would give qualified, professional overseas drivers that are considering re-locating to Australia permanently or temporarily, a deserved advantage over people in other occupations where there aren’t chronic shortages.

Our immigration rules need to change to support the Australia economy and people. We cannot even compete with other countries that have recognised the skill of a heavy vehicle driver such as US, Canada and the UK.

As we struggle to recover from the pandemic and the longer-term issues around labour supply our industry remains disenfranchised with bureaucracy which is slow to react. There are solutions and outcomes that would bring welcome positive reform to our industry and a simple reclassification of a migration standard would be a strong first step.

  • Peter Anderson is CEO, Victorian Transport Association

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