07 July 2006

Are truck drivers the next to be added to Australia's Migration Occupations in Demand List?

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Nick Grimm of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is reporting that Australia's trucking industy is lobbying the Government to have truck drivers recognised as skilled workers.

According to the latest official figures, more than 150 foreign workers are arriving here every day in response to the nation's shortage of skilled workers. Now the transport industry wants to deal itself into the game, arguing there aren't enough trained truck drivers to keep the wheels turning, underscoring just how widespread the shortage really is.

The problem for the industry is that truck drivers are regarded as only semi-skilled, making foreign drivers ineligible under the Federal Government's skilled migration rules. But the union is arguing that the industry move is part of a strategy to drive down wages, and adds to the concern that Australia will simply end up with more and more low-paid foreign workers.

According to official forecasts, Australia's total freight workload is expected to double in the next 15 years. That means a lot more big rigs on the roads and, of course, more drivers needed behind the wheel. The problem is where to find them.

The Road Transport Industry Group, the Australian Trucking Association, has taken a plan to the Federal Government encouraging the use of overseas workers.

‘Well, we see it as a possible short-term solution, as there are skilled drivers throughout Europe and various parts of the globe, that are eager to actually come to Australia because of the lifestyle we have,’ said Damian McFarlane, of the Australian Trucking Association. ‘Conditions here in Australia are very good, not just in terms of employment, but also lifestyle.’

Foreign-trained workers are already coming to Australia under the Federal Immigration Department's 457 Visa. It's a four-year work permit for skilled migrants. The catch for the trucking industry is that truck drivers aren't classified as skilled workers; rather, they're defined as semi-skilled.

If you look at the magnitude of the job, the average long-haul driver is given an asset worth more than $300,000, let alone the value of the freight. There's a lot of trust. The skill level that's required to operate that machinery or that technology is fairly high. So, I think, we can quite easily establish that yes, they are a skill,’ said McFarlane.

The Australian Trucking Association represents influential business interests like Australia's largest road freight operator, Toll Holdings. It wants truckies' special skills to be recognised so that they're eligible for 457 Visa. The company declined a request to speak about the issue, but in its online newsletter argues that hiring foreign truckies is a better option than training Australian drivers.

’Gone are the days where it's very much 'my dad taught me to drive sitting on his knee and, therefore, I can drive a truck' - that's not the case, said McFarlane. ’It's very advanced technology. These people are not just truck drivers; they are professional vehicle operators.’

Maybe so, but professional vehicle operators, or truckies as they're known to most, are represented by a union that's threatening aggressive industrial action to put the brakes on what it sees as big business exploiting overseas workers desperate for a job. Meanwhile, is this the thin edge of a wedge being pushed into the Immigration Department's skilled migration scheme? For its part, the Australian Trucking Association admits they're not alone in seeking to widen the existing definition of skilled migrants.

’I know that we're not the first industry group to go down this path and I'm sure we won't be the last. I think there's a message for the community at large: that we need to look closely at the skills that we're training our young people with,’ said McFarlane.

The Immigration Department says negotiations on an agreement with the trucking industry over importing drivers are continuing.

Take our Online Skilled Visa Assessment to see if you qualify for immigration to Australia.

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