Fishing for truck drivers

A Far North Queensland transport operator is using a unique hook to try and lure in drivers, as he struggles to get bums on seats.

For Rob Roy Earthmoving in western Cape York Peninsula, securing good quality truck drivers has become an ongoing headache. Though many transport operators are experiencing similar issues, for this business, the seasonal work brought on thanks to the wet season only adds to the difficulty.

Operations manager Gavan Roy, 33, is now promoting the lifestyle that comes with the job. “If you’re into hunting, fishing, camping or the general outdoors lifestyle, that’s basically what we’re up here for,” he said. 

He’s hoping the lure of the great outdoors will help attract more truck drivers into the business.

Avid fishers will be able to catch a plentiful supply of barramundi, threadfin salmon, grunter and mangrove jacks. They may also at some stage spot a saltwater crocodile in one of the waterways, where swimming is obviously not recommended.

The company hopes the lure of the lifestyle will be enough to help attract truck drivers to work from their base at Weipa, where they won’t have to worry about traffic jams or traffic lights. 

In fact, the only set of traffic lights at Weipa’s control is on a section of the road when bauxite trucks owned by mining giant Rio Tinto cross. These are the last set of traffic lights before Mareeba and Cairns – and the only ones there.

Weipa is a coastal mining town and the largest town on the Cape York Peninsula. It also attracts many holidaymakers for fishing and crabbing expeditions. Some also make the long journey for the annual Weipa Fishing Classic. “There are plenty of fish and crabs in the waterways around here,” Gavan said.

Gavan’s father Rob Roy started the business in 1981 with just one truck. They were running a fleet of 10 trucks in 2009, but this year downsized to seven or eight because they just can’t find good operators to drive them.

They have five road train prime movers: two Kenworth T659s, a 4900 Western Star, and a Kenworth 604 and a 404. The company also has a couple of Hino town trucks for doing single water cart work, along with a 359 8×4 tilt tray.

“The Western Star had belonged to a couple named John and Janet and carted fuel at and around Normanton for many years,” Rob said.

In a room near Rob’s office is a large picture on the wall from 1992 when he won a major prize with one of his then old Louisville’s in a competition run by Ford.

Gavan started working in the family business when he was 14, labouring and helping out in the workshop. Once he hit 18, he got his truck licence and moved into a role as a driver. 

“We’ve had many opportunities to have more trucks out on the road but due to a shortage of drivers, we’re confined to having just two or three trucks operating,” said Gavan.

Rob Roy Earthmoving does earthworks, road construction, bulk loading and cartage, general freight, vehicle recovery, bitumen sealing services, wide load pilot duties, and runs a heavy haul fleet service.

“I’m just coming back into Weipa now. Dad and myself are finding we’re behind the wheel more than we’re in the office. The struggle to find drivers and keep drivers here for seasonal work is an ongoing issue every year.” 

Most of the last 500 kilometres of Weipa consists of red dirt roads which are closed annually from around December until April. However it is open to trucks from Cairns, Townsville, the Atherton Tablelands and further beyond for the rest of the year when hardly any rainfall is recorded.

The average annual rainfall at Weipa is more than 2 metres, with nearly all of it falling in those wet months, which also coincides with the cyclone season.

The issue of trying to find drivers was only further exacerbated this year with a later start to the season than usual. “2022 has been up there as one of the busier seasons on Cape York. But it was a later start than usual. The season generally starts around April/ May but this year it was mid-June before things really kicked off,” explained Gavan.

About 80 per cent of the work is remote outback work, sometimes in extreme conditions.

Major contributing factors to the late start were late rain and the Archer River flooding, which peaked at 10.4 metres at the end of April. Generally the working season runs from April through to December, then the business closes from January through to March. 

“Given the later start, the pick of the drivers were all already taken. It can be hard to hang on to drivers over those quiet months. Then there’s having to guess when the wet will end and try to recruit drivers for the season. I don’t mind being in the truck, I quite enjoy it, but it’s tough to fill the gaps,” Gavan added. 

“Now is the time of the year we get all the maintenance done, when the wet weather closes the roads. We have five drivers and I would agree it is a fortress at Weipa during these months,” Gavan said.

Before the roads are open, Rob Roy Earthmoving does lots of work fixing roads and hauling gear as far away as Coen and to the old telegraph station near Bamaga at the tip of Cape York.

As around 80 per cent of the company’s work is comprised of remote bush jobs, sometimes in extreme conditions, Rob Roy Earthmoving needs quality operators who can think for themselves.

“They also need to maintain their unit and be able to diagnose and/or overcome issues as they may be a long way from help. It’s a demanding job at times but some of the destinations we go to make it all worthwhile. With some of the best fishing, camping and hunting you could ask for, the Cape certainly has its attractions for those who love the outdoors,” Gavan said, adding that the lifestyle aspect has helped to get some drivers through the door.

“But there are a lot of drivers who expect the big money, but we’re not a big company so we can’t match the likes of the huge mining companies out west. It seems like there are no old school drivers around anymore. You get some drivers who come in and then six months later they go over to the west for five years to chase the big money, so that’s definitely impacting the industry over this side of the country.”

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