For how many years have we been talking about South Africa experiencing a truck driver shortage? For how many years have operators bemoaned the fact that they can’t get well qualified, professional drivers? The answer is: “For far too many years”. And what has been done on a grand, national scale to address this problem? Nothing that I know of! In fact, the bigger companies have given up and many have started their own in-house driver training initiatives. The other industry sector which has accented driver training as an added value service lies within the truck manufacturer arena – not all of them though. And even here, their efforts are directed at existing or new clients rather than at the wider market. The problem lies not only in attracting newcomers to the industry but also in the quality of existing PrDP drivers. Having spoken to a number of operators who regularly recruit drivers, the average acceptance level is between five to 10 percent of applicants. I recall a few years ago talking to Manline and was told that out of 100 applicants, they were able to select only seven they deemed suitable for training. Note – not suitable to take a truck out on the road but rather ‘suitable for training’. And those were from our pool of existing Code EC drivers holding a Professional Drivers Permit (PrDP) – and driving interlinks.
That’s at the top end of the scale. At the other end, namely, youngsters wanting to enter the industry, there is absolutely nothing happening. Truck driving has never been marketed as an attractive career path for young people to follow and for those who do want to come in, where do they go? I have often been asked this question and to be honest, I have not been able to give an answer. I recall talking to the late, great Jack Webster about this and I challenged him to find an entry point for a young fellow who wanted to become a career-orientated truck driver. After about two weeks, Uncle Jack, as he was affectionately known in the industry, came back to me and in that wonderful Yorkshire accent that he never lost, said: “Patrick, ah dunt knooo.” For Jack Webster to say “I don’t know” is a terrible indictment against the industry and an accurate reflection of the reality facing us. He hated not knowing!
Before our readers jump on for me being too harsh on our local industry, let me emphasise that this is not a problem unique to South Africa. It exists throughout the world. Tim Quinlan, who in by-gone years headed up the African, Middle East, Australian, New Zealand and Russian territories for Navistar and is now acting as a consultant to companies like ELT Commercials, recently sent me an email received from a colleague of his overseas: Tim asked him about the state of truck sales in North America. Here was the reply: “In January through to March 2014, as the severe winter conditions froze out train movements, demand for trucking went through the ceiling – not by several ticks but sky-rocketed. It exposed the fact that you can build as many engines and trucks as you want but there is a shortage of in excess of 40 000 drivers in North America. There’s plenty of truck and engine capacity at the factories but nobody to drive them.” I bounced this off Sean Kilcarr, my good friend and fellow trucking scribe in America and asked him if it tallies with what he knows. Here’s his reply: “Yes. It’s that bad – about 40 000 now and expected to be 300 000 in 10 years. No-one wants to be a truck driver anymore.” Europe is the same.
In South Africa, I have not seen a global number attached to the driver shortage. However, it is a serious one and all the companies I have spoken to need more drivers – and battle to find them. And forget about the one truck/one driver notion. Depending on the nature of the operation, you could need 2.5 to 3 drivers per truck. This would be on a 24/7 operation which requires both a day and a night shift. Then you have to cater for weekends off as well as illness and of course, structured leave. Yet very few companies have achieved this. Apart from operational hassles, this shortage also presents a road safety risk with many drivers spending far too much time behind the wheel which has resulted in driver fatigue becoming a very real hazard on our roads. There is also a social issue in that drivers do not spend enough time at home with their families.
So where does all this leave us? What is the answer? I believe the answer lies in leaving the talk and moving on to do something about it. The driver shortage problem is well known. We don’t have to talk about it anymore. Let’s rather do something by harnessing the power of the industry to drive forward an initiative that will address the problem on a massive scale starting at the roots, namely, at bringing in youngsters without even a car licence and training them up into being professional truck drivers. Too young you might say. Not so! Sanele May, the driver who lost it going down Field’s Hill and killed 24 people, was only 23-years-old. We already have youngsters driving huge interlinks but many are untrained and inexperienced. We need to turn that around. Of course, it is not only about training. It is about promoting the industry – and specifically truck driving – as an attractive career path for youngsters. This will require a number of changes – from operators, truck-stop operators and owners, truck drivers themselves and from a number of other quarters – including the Department of Transport.
Like FleetWatch did back in 1994 with the formation of Trucking Against Aids which developed over the years into today’s highly successful Trucking Wellness programme, FleetWatch is now going full guns on tackling this issue. We have a vision – and it is a big one. The initiative kicks off on July 10th with a fund raising golf day where the full vision and action plan will be spelt out. And as I say, the vision is big with the pilot ‘action plan’ already in motion. Here’s a hint. How about a Driver ‘University’ where South Africa becomes internationally recognized as a global centre of excellence for truck driver training. CLICK HERE for more information on the July 10th golf day and come join us. Enough of the talk. It’s time for action! Let’s do it!