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A survey by the Road Transport Forum has found 112 companies have trucks parked up because of a shortage of about 400 drivers. The total shortage is likely to be much higher because only 230 of the forum's 4000 members responded.
Forum chief Ken Shirley said it took at least three years for a local driver to progress from a basic car licence to a class 5 licence for heavy trucks with trailers, and companies were filling the gap with immigrants.
"Fifteen per cent of drivers in some fleets are foreign migrant workers."
But the Government removed class 5 drivers from the skill shortage list for permanent residence last month in what Mr Shirley described as "a serious strategic error".
"I think the message from the Government is that they want us to target the unemployed."
Calven Bonney of Penrose-based LW Bonney and Sons said almost 20 of his 150 drivers were migrants, many from Fiji and India. Four or five others were Kiwis who had come home from Australia. But it was not enough. "I'm looking at 15 trucks, and a good 10 of them could go to work now if I had drivers."
James Gleeson of Wiri-based Gleeson and Cox said he had recruited drivers from Work and Income, and trained about 15 local drivers in the past eight years, but also recruited drivers from Fiji and the Philippines because all 15 trained local drivers had left.
"We are on the upper end of the market with pay rates, our drivers are earning up to about $85,000."
However, another company, which did not want to be named, said it had no trouble keeping drivers as it paid up to $30 an hour, compared with as little as $22 elsewhere.
West Auckland trucking operator Robin Thomas said he felt his business was at risk when one of his drivers applied to renew his work permit recently.
Surend, who came here from Fiji in 2006, is crucial in the small team of 30 in Mr Thomas' company, Hiab Transport. But he has never been able to get more than a one-year work permit at a time.
"He did get a permit last month, but we were afraid that he wouldn't," said Mr Thomas. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost him."
Surend, who has no surname, operates truck-based cranes as well as driving all over the North Island, often working up to 14 hours a day and staying away overnight.
He is 50 and brought his wife and three children here a year after he arrived.
He earns $26 an hour and his wife works, but they have to spend "a few grand" every year on medicals, police checks and processing fees to keep renewing their work permit. They have applied for permanent residence but were turned down.
- Simon Collins of the New Zealand Herald