COVID compliance fallout crippling road transport: VTA

A survey conducted by the Victorian Transport Association (VTA) has revealed onerous compliance measures and vaccine mandates for freight workers are wreaking havoc on road transport operators.

The VTA said in a statement that the purpose of the survey was to better understand how regulatory adjustments might assist the industry, which is endeavouring to overcome massive supply chain pressures in the lead-up to Christmas and beyond.

Addressing a range of issues that have emerged during the pandemic, the survey was reportedly completed by more than 75 small, medium and large operators carrying freight ranging from chemicals and fuel, construction goods, agricultural commodities, food, groceries and general merchandise.

According to the VTA, the survey results reaffirmed the industry’s concerns that COVID restrictions have served to exacerbate the pre-existing issue of driver shortages and a government system that restricts the industry from attracting young people.

Among the key findings:

• 84 per cent of operators said COVID restrictions had negatively impacted their businesses;

• 62 per cent of operators have lost an average of four per cent of their drivers because of mandatory vaccinations, with one operator surveyed losing half his drivers;

• A massive 95 per cent of operators are experiencing a shortage of drivers, with nearly 1,800 vacancies in the responding companies alone.

• 90 per cent of operators said they would support regulatory changes enabling 18-year-olds to be trained to attain a heavy vehicle licence.

VTA CEO Peter Anderson said the survey echoed concerns the Association had been advocating for months and that unless action was taken to help industry attract new drivers, supply chains would continue to be vulnerable, putting upward pressure on consumer costs.

“When 95 per cent of operators say they can’t find enough drivers, it confirms much more needs to be done by governments in partnership with industry to recruit people,” said Anderson.

“Victoria’s heavy vehicle licencing system is broken and we need urgent action to attract young people to our rapidly ageing profession.”

Anderson contended that nine out of ten operators said they would support a licencing regime that would professionally train and employ 18-year-old school leavers to drive a heavy vehicle.

“The government must act on this information, or the shortage will get worse as older drivers retire, with the inevitable consequences being higher consumer prices at the till,” he said.

Anderson emphasised that losing an average four per cent of drivers is the last thing an operator needs in the middle of a labour shortage crisis.

“The fact that vaccine mandates have driven some out of the profession underscores our industry’s urgent need for licencing reform to attract young, new people to freight and logistics,” he said.

“If you can pilot a plane at 16 and fight in the armed forces overseas at 18, there’s no reason an 18-year-old couldn’t be trusted behind the wheel of a heavy vehicle after extensive training and instruction.”

Freestone’s Transport Managing Director Paul Freestone said the labour shortage is the worst he’s seen in his 50 years in transport.

“Fuel and labour are the biggest costs for operators and if we don’t increase our pool of drivers costs will increase extraordinarily,” said Freestone.

“The single biggest impediment to recruiting new drivers is an out-of-date licencing system that prevents the industry from training young, competent people for a career as a professional driver.”

Freestone stressed that he’d love to be able to hire qualified young people for a lifelong career in transport but that under the current licencing regime there is no provision for this.

The survey also queried respondents about their environmental policies at a time when the national conversation about emissions reductions is fever-pitched.

Reportedly around three-quarters of operators have an environmental policy in their business while 82 per cent said they would support regulatory changes to encourage low-emission heavy vehicles.

“The quickest way to reduce heavy vehicle emissions is to incentivise operators to replace their fleets with vehicles that have lower emitting Euro 5 and 6 engines,” said Anderson.

Respondents were also probed about the three biggest issues they anticipated facing next year, with the responses suggesting labour availability (96 per cent), costs and rates management (62 per cent) and fuel pricing (50 per cent) were the most pressing concerns for freight operators.

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