Where have all the drivers gone?

In April 2023, Industry Comment5 MinutesBy Russell WalshMay 3, 2023

The shortage of truck drivers is not new. It was well documented in the Driver Recruitment/Retention in the Heavy Truck Transport Industry report of April 2003 by Oliver Hatton Ltd and TERNZ for the Road Transport Forum NZ, New Zealand Forest Owners Association and the Log Transport Safety Council. This predicted a shortfall of 10,000 drivers by 2010 if no action were taken to address the recruitment/ retention concerns. It also made several recommendations to address the issues. In 2022, many of these issues are still cited as underlying causes.

Data provided by NZTA shows that on 30 June 2020, there were 124,857 full class-5 licence holders in New Zealand and 11,290 holders with a class-5 learner licence. StatsNZ suggests there are about 30,000 truck drivers in New Zealand.

Getting to the underlying causes of the issue takes work, as there are numerous reasons discussed with different emphases, depending on who is talking. As the chart (above) shows, it is not as though there is an issue with people who are ‘qualified’ to be truck drivers, i.e, they hold an appropriate full-class driver’s licence. (Class 3 is not included as it is not a compulsory step in the Graduated Licensing System; very few people complete this licence.)

Class-2 and -4 licences have broader applications than class 5, which is almost unique to the road transport industry. Class-5 licences, therefore, provide a good indicator of heavy-vehicle licence graduates available for employment in the industry.

The majority – 89% of those issued a full-class (5F) licence – do so by completing an NZTA-approved course. With minor exceptions, the remainder completes a class-5 full licence test with a testing officer.

Approved courses are mandated in the Driver Licencing Rule. They have been the principal pathway for people to obtain full-class heavy-vehicle driver’s licences since the rule was introduced in 1999. The courses were developed with considerable input from the industry and have changed very little in the past 23 years.

NZTA-approved course providers deliver all approved courses. Except for statutory fees, the market sets the costs of these courses. Most course providers do not advertise their charges, but from those that do, it appears the fee to complete a class-5 approved course is about $900 to $1200 per person.

For the past 11 years, about 1900 5F licences have been issued annually. So, what are these people doing once they get their licences? Getting to the bottom of this could be key to understanding why there is an ongoing shortage of drivers in the industry.

The course content was not developed solely to provide a steady supply of drivers for the industry, but the intent was there. However, this doesn’t appear to have happened as it was envisaged at the time. The number completing these courses suggests ‘qualified’ drivers are flowing through the licensing system – so what is wrong? Is the industry wary of employing newly licensed drivers, or is it wary of the course provider system? Or is it simply that people who complete these courses lack the required industry knowledge/experience? Perhaps it is time the industry associations looked into why this is.

I understand that some course providers are also association members, so it should be a relatively simple task for the associations to develop a relationship with those providers and work with them and those who complete courses towards employment in the industry, providing mentoring to develop work-based/on-the-job skills.

The current driver-licensing system is not perfect, but it is what we have until something else comes along; the industry needs to look at what it can do within the existing scope of system and help itself and not rely on others.