‘Something needs to be done’ - WA truck driver shortage could force farmers to store grain after harvest

Shannon VerhagenCountryman
David Fyfe, father of 2019 Brownlow Medal winner, Fremantle Dockers captain Nat Fyfe, pictured at the family's Lake Grace business, Fyfe Transport. PICTURE BY NIC ELLIS THE WEST AUSTRALIAN
Camera IconDavid Fyfe, father of 2019 Brownlow Medal winner, Fremantle Dockers captain Nat Fyfe, pictured at the family's Lake Grace business, Fyfe Transport. PICTURE BY NIC ELLIS THE WEST AUSTRALIAN Credit: The West Australian

This year’s looming harvest could take on a significantly different format if WA’s truck driver shortage crisis is not dealt with soon, with an industry leader urging that decisions be made “in the next two weeks” before it is too late.

Around the State, 500 driver jobs are going begging, with hundreds parked up and no one to drive them.

If the shortage was not already putting pressure on the transport industry, the heat is about to be turned up with harvest just around the corner.

WA Livestock and Rural Transport Association president David Fyfe believed if the State Government refused to allow truck drivers from outside WA in, farmers would have to store their grain on-farm because the State’s fleet would not be able to keep up with the demand.

It could see the time taken to shift grain off farms double to eight weeks.

I believe farmers might have to bag their grain this year and work out how to store it on-farm.

David Fyfe

“If you’ve got farmers really geared highly taking off a lot of crop daily and used to transport coming in and keeping headers moving, those farmers are going to have to make a plan.

“My suggestion is to bag it and give your contractor time to shift it later on.

“That will spread the work out so contractors — especially country contractors that rely hugely on farmers for yearly income — can manage it.”

Picture: Danella Bevis
Camera IconPicture: Danella Bevis Credit: Danella Bevis/Countryman

Transport Minister Rita Saffioti said the State Government expected to be able to announce details of a program proposal addressing the issue in the near future.

“The McGowan Government is working in partnership with the Western Roads Federation and other industry stakeholders to develop a program proposal to address a current shortage of heavy haulage drivers as a result of COVID-19,” she said.

Mr Fyfe said time was ticking, with the border becoming a “nervous issue” for companies who in a normal year would bring in four or five drivers from over east or New Zealand for the harvest.

“To get these guys across they’d need to isolate for two weeks and then they’d need to isolate for another two when they got home,” he said.

“That’s a month of their life that they’re stuck isolating and who pays for that? It’s probably going to become financially unviable.

Something needs to be done in the next two weeks, otherwise the guys that normally come over will find other work.

David Fyfe
WA Farmers CEO Trevor Whittington.
Camera IconWA Farmers CEO Trevor Whittington. Credit: Justin Benson-Cooper/The Sunday Times, Justin Benson-Cooper

WAFarmers chief executive Trevor Whittington said there was a “simple solution” to the harvest crisis and urged the Government to bring in drivers from the Eastern States.

“There’s probably 300 trucks parked up across WA at the moment and we’re 500 drivers short,” he said.

“Five million of our 15 million tonnes — if we get there — gets moved by road to port because to Esperance there’s no rail.

So there’s going to be a lot of grain put in silos or silo bags on farms and who’s going to pay — the growers.

Trevor Whittington

Mr Fyfe even suggested bringing ex-truckies turned grey nomads out of retirement for a month to help.

State Transport minister Rita Saffioti.
Camera IconState Transport minister Rita Saffioti. Credit: Kelsey Reid/The West Australian, Kelsey Reid

Ms Saffioti said the State Government had developed a new, free heavy haulage course to encourage more people into the industry which would launch in Collie next week, with enrolment at full capacity.

“We will continue to work collaboratively with industry and the training sector to ensure drivers have the opportunity to learn necessary skills and people looking to re-skill and work in the trucking industry have the opportunity to do so,” she said.

Mr Fyfe commended the course’s introduction, stating “if we don’t start somewhere, we just don’t start” but said experienced drivers were needed now and there was “no real fast step” into getting the Multi Combination licence necessary to drive road trains.

For your MC, you need to have had your car license for three years and Heavy Rigid license for at least one, which makes you at least 21… but you still need to have done several years of driving and training.

David Fyfe

A lot of insurance companies would not insure drivers under 23-24 years old, he said, further narrowing the pool of eligible drivers.

It could see some farmers turning to using smaller trucks which would not require an MC license.

“I’m sure there’d be some farmers happy to put someone on a semi and take a trailer off so it’s only a 25 tonne load, but it’s nearly like going to the shops and buying one item at a time instead of filling the trolley,” Mr Fyfe said.

Both Mr Fyfe and Mr Whittington said the last thing they wanted was inexperienced drivers on the road and something needed to be done.

Mr Whittington said if inexperienced drivers were put on the road, it was “highly likely” there would be “a serious accident” which could have tragic consequences.

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