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WA grain sector bracing to weather ‘perfect storm’

Michael Harding hasn’t seen a skills shortage crisis like this in the grain sector in all his years in the trucking game.

The director of The Freight Lines Group – one of the major players in WA’s looming grain harvest – calls it a perfect storm: a pre-existing driver shortage exacerbated by a pandemic and a record 22 million tonnes yield.

It’s a massive issue for everyone, says Harding, without a quick fix.

“You’ve just got to minimise the damage and work with your clients to work out the best way to get the grain away,” he said.

Harding would usually have a fleet of 80 trucks to call on when the season kicks off in earnest next month. 

But this October he estimates that he’ll probably be 25-30 trucks short of the volume he needs, with 7-8 in his own fleet parked up without drivers.

“I’ll probably jump in one, probably put the OH&S guy in one and put the workshop manager in one, so you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul really.”

Harding can only pray that the borders open up, but even then it may not be enough with most east coasters – and Kiwis – opting for the higher pay on offer in the mines – $50-plus vs. $40.

“A lot of other drivers are reluctant to come over now because they don’t know how they’re going to get back,” Harding said.

“They think, ‘What happens if there’s an outbreak in WA like there is in Sydney and I’m stuck there for 3-4 months?’

“Yes, there is work there but if there is a complete lockdown all that could dry up a bit as well. 

“It’s just a really crazy world we live in at the moment and we’ve all just got to all got to learn to adapt and find a way through. It’s going to be really hard work for everyone involved in our industry.”

Leon Whittle, the Jerramungup-based operations manager for Campbell Transport, is also bracing for a longer-than-normal season, one that may not finish until the end of January, rather than earlier in the month.

“We’ve hit the panic button; we can’t get drivers,” Whittle told Big Rigs.

“We just picked up two new ones, but we’re way down on what we should have.

“Everyone’s putting it down to Covid.”

Whittle said the pandemic is also starting to impact on the supply of bulk trailers.

“You could ring quite a few people over here at the moment and they’re all screaming for trailers, and they’re not going to get them in time because you can’t get materials from overseas to make the trailers.”

For both Whittle and Harding the immediate workaround are the waterproof bags farmers can use to store the grain until a truck frees up to cart it away.

Whittle is keen to tap into government-funded driver training programs such as the one masterminded by the Western Roads Federation to play his part.

Although supportive of those types of schemes, Harding, however, said he’s more focused on finding a short-term solution.

“Those three-, four- and five-year plans to get young people into the industry are great, but they’re a while away. They’re not going to solve the short-term problem which is not just limited to harvest.

“Directly straight after harvest all of us companies contracted to CBH they then want all the grain carted in from the outlying bins into the ports so they can export it out, so it just doesn’t stop.

Harding is also against fast-tracking a driver through to the MC level.

“That to me becomes a safety issue. I’d rather farmer X and CBH, or someone, has to get 120t a day less, but everyone is a lot safer, that’s probably the way I’d rather go.”

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