The colour of the Pilbara region in northern Western Australia is overwhelming; a signature deep red hue of the remote area comes from the iron ore-filled rocks that are also the source of its fortune. In striking contrast are a set of bright pink trucks owned by the Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls - one of which is a new Mack Super-Liner.
This article was reproduced courtesy of Diesel Magazine.
The two instantly recognisable prime movers were donated to the training organisation by Volvo Group Australia (VGA) as part of an initiative to tackle Australia's current problems with driver recruitment and retention in the trucking industry.
A recent study commissioned by VGA shows the significant truck driver shortage Australia is facing, if more is not done to address the situation.
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As part of the donation from VGA, a Mack Super-Liner was delivered to PHHG alongside a Volvo FH16, in recognition of the trailblazing work being done by PHHG co-founder, Heather Jones.
Until now, Heather has been a lone voice in the Pilbara wilderness. For ten years, she has been training drivers in Perth and Karratha through PHHG, aiming to give them the required skills and experience to become safe and efficient drivers - abilities she has learned over her 25 years in the transport industry, many of which were spent behind the wheel.
Starting out as a legal secretary and then as a PA in the mines, the opportunity arose to drive a big dump truck in Karratha. Later as a single mum with young daughters, the only job where she could take her kids along was truck driving, home-schooling the two girls in the cab.
"I got the job through somebody giving me an opportunity, this is why I am so passionate about paying it forward, and giving women and young guys an opportunity to get into this industry," says Heather, adding that it is important to join the industry the right way.
"I was working for a company where I ended up being transport manager, allocator and driver, [but my boss] had a total disregard for training and he would hire anybody to put a bum on the seat. We had a new girl start who had an automatic HR license, and he gave her an 18 speed Kenworth. There had been a few things that had cheesed me off, until my sister told me, 'You know how to do it right, start your own company'."
So she did. She won work with contacts she'd gained in her time and put in a quote for another job building a tunnel in Perth. "I found some second-hand eight wheelers, put in the quote and got the job. Then had to rapidly find some drivers."
Unfortunately, she soon learned a valuable lesson when a client didn't pay its bills, forcing her to sell all of her trucks and lay off her drivers. At a real low point, Heather headed north to Karratha, running one truck and two pilot vehicles. "I worked every legal hour possible, lived in my truck and went from there," says Heather. "It opened up the possibility to do what I really love: promoting professionalism, road safety and driver training."
One part of this initiative has seen Heather visiting schools, with a couple of priorities: enhance awareness of trucks and their blind spots, and promote trucking as a career to those who may not have initially considered it attractive.
"I love this job and I want as many people as possible to experience it," says Heather. "It really is a fantastic job and we have the most remarkable people. I tell the trainees they are the cornerstones of society. Don't ever say you are a dumbass truck driver. Without trucks we don't have a society."
At the time there was pressure on the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency to include truck driving in the Consolidated Skilled Occupation List to enable transport companies to bring foreign drivers into Australia on 457 visas. There was also an assertion that the trucking industry had struggled to attract women and aboriginal Australians to participate. One submission summed it up as: 'the industry is may be off-putting to women'.
"At the time, there were 30 female drivers in Karratha, and we met every six weeks," says Heather. "We had specific issues, like being a little bit shorter and weaker than men. So we would bounce around ideas on how to better put up bolsters or change a tyre. We do it the easy way, not the bloke's way. We had a laugh and would share knowledge.
"We also discussed how we could become more visible. We decided start an organisation, specifically aimed at bringing women and young guys into the industry. We have a good bunch of girls. We wanted to be visible but not be a target, so we decided to start wearing pink hi-vis shirt. Then we contacted the media and it snowballed. Press all around the world had done stories on us: We are girls, in the Wild West, playing with big toys.
"That generated an immediate response. I could have stopped driving and just answered emails, Facebook and other contact requests. Even now it could be a full time job. Whenever there's another story we will get another 50 to 100 people saying they want to join us."
Currently, PHHG can handle two or three trainees a month, some for a month, others for a couple of weeks. Accommodation is limited at the moment, but when organised, capacity should go up to four a month. Heather says she reckons there would be enough 'new to the industry' truck drivers in Australia to fill the drivers' seats, if they are trained properly.
That has been the PHHG philosophy from day one: treat drivers right and train them the right way. The business of paying the bills is important too, and the trucks need to pay their way. 50 per cent of the work being handled by the operations involves waste out of gas installations and mine sites. The rest of the work is in and out of the port at Karratha, involving single-trailer general freight work, plus moving machines with a float, as and when required. This work is steady year round and also allows a couple of days every few weeks to do the classroom side of the training.
"There's stuff you can learn in the yard and stuff you can learn in the classroom," says Heather. "That has to be ten per cent of what we are doing. They do need to learn how to read permits and find out the routes they can use, but this is a high-risk job; we need to have 90 per cent of time in the truck."
At the time of this article, the trucks are out working, running B-triples out to a large gas installation site and collecting the small town's garbage. At any one time there can be trainees working on the job. "The training is all free. We give them a certificate of participation and we list what they have done. Every single person who has been through our training program has been employed within two weeks of leaving us. We are not training - we are mentoring and coaching," says Heather.
"Everything behind the cab is what we train. Load restraint, tyre changing, tippers, tankers, tilt tray recovery, a day in a pilot vehicle and oversize loads. Officially, they are on work experience insurance for them from NTI, It's really simple to get the insurance but a senior driver has to supervise them at all stages of training."
The first stage see trainees observe while sitting in the passenger seat and learning how to do the job properly. The next stage is to handle the simpler tasks with an experienced driver at their side helping out, and the final stage involves the driver tackling the complete task on their own to an extent, but monitored to ensure safety and efficiency.
"This way, we will have no issues creating experienced drivers, we will have professionals, trained truck drivers to fill the seats of those who are retiring and cope with the growing freight task. There are companies waiting for our next batches all the time," Heather says.
"We have 500 people on our waiting list. I jokingly say I'll be dead before we get through them. We need more people to come on board - industry has to do this and they have to do it right. We have the owner-drivers who will come in under our umbrella and train people, as well, but they have got to do it our standards. They have got to have the same mindset as me and want to promote safety and professionalism."
Heather reckons the system they have devised needs to be replicated in every state. "Maybe, we can find some high-end operators and place the trainees in their truck. We can then go from state to state. We need professional transport companies, not the ones who are always on TV.”
The donation of the two bright pink prime movers is just the start of the initiative, as VGA President Peter Voorhoeve is already talking about creating some kind of truck driver academy.