The trucking industry has been battling with the same problem for some time, the gap between driver licensing and driver skills. There are plenty of drivers who have a license allowing them to drive a certain class of truck, anything up to a road train, but lack the necessary skills to properly handle the vehicle in a safe and practical way.
Transport operators often lack the resources to take on a driver who has the correct license, but no experience. Driver training schools are not obliged to prepare a driver for work; they just prepare them to pass the test.
One small organisation in the remote northern reaches of West Australia, in Karratha, is trying to address this issue in a limited way. The Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls (PHHG) and their spokesperson Heather Jones take licensed but inexperienced drivers out on the road with them in a crash course in the realities and procedures of life on the road in a road train.
Diesel met up with Lee Roberts as she was in training with the Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls. Now, we meet up with her and find out how she has fared in the trucking industry since then.
“I hadn’t touched a dolly before I got up there. Everything I picked up was great and the confidence I got from Heather was awesome,” says Lee. “Afterwards, I came back down to Perth and Heather introduced me to South West Express and I was approached by a recruitment mob at the same time. I actually worked for both operations for about a year. They were both aware I was working two jobs, one in refrigeration and one on the wharf. I was working 12 days a fortnight.
“Then it got a bit much. I was very grateful to have found two companies who would help me fit in driving with my family. I went on Seek to look for work, and there were a few companies who phoned me about a job, but when I told them I have kids, that was the end of the conversation.”
The relationship with South West Express has worked well for Lee. The company only give her weekend work and understand her situation. Lee is the only female driver in the business.
“I haven’t had any dramas working there, they’ve been great,” says Lee. “I do the weekend work, but make them aware of the days I can get a babysitter during the week, if they need me. Because the babysitting is irregular, I can’t make a long-term consistent commitment to them. There’s only been a couple of times in the last two years when I have said I’m available and they haven’t given me a shift.
“Sometimes they will phone to ask if I can fill in and they know I can’t get to work until 8.30 after dropping the kids at school and have to finish in time to collect them in the afternoon. It is a bonus for them to have someone they can call on in an emergency. I will always try to come in, because they won’t call me unless they need me.
“At the moment it’s not financial for me, because if I work more than one day a fortnight they take 40 per cent off my pension, plus 30 per cent tax. I get less than 30 per cent of what I actually earn. Add in fuel to come to work and daycare, I might make 10 or 20 bucks for working for the day. I am doing it so that on my resumé, it says I’m employed.”
With one of the other operators Lee worked for, she was driving pocket road trains around Perth but on a lower pay grade than other male drivers. After she had proved herself to be capable of handling the job, she went to see her boss and asked for a pay rise to the same rate as the other drivers. This provoked an annoyed reaction. She moved on as she didn’t feel valued, despite putting in a lot of effort.
On her general relationship with other drivers she works with, Lee’s comment is, “The majority of them are really good, there are just a few, who get their nose out of joint.”
Lee still has no paper proof of her capabilities and the one document she has is the one she started with, her MC license. However, what she does have now is a track record, working with the PHHG, and becoming a regular part of the South West Express set-up.
“I still don’t think it’s right that you can get your road train license by driving a B-double,” says Lee. “To get your crane ticket you need to get 100 hours up on the crane to qualify. You have to do a one week course on a confined work site, not out on the road with everyone else.
“Even if you want to get some paid-for extra training for yourself, you can’t. There’s nowhere to go to get it. Something like Heather is doing is awesome, but she needs more help to make it into something like it needs to be. It also needs to be signed off by some nationally-recognised body.”
Lee has found that the way for someone like her to get into the truck driving profession is through recruitment companies. ‘They’ll take anyone’ is how she puts it. As a final comment, this is a damning statement about the state of training in the trucking industry.