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Fennell Forestry's New Approach To Driver Training

A shortage of skilled labour and a desire to improve safety has pushed South Australian company Fennell Forestry to find a ‘better’ way to recruit, train and retain truck drivers, focusing on competency rather than tenure.

Many may be unaware of Australia’s ‘Green Triangle’, the spectacular forestry region that spans the borders of South Australia and Victoria.

Encompassing the area surrounding ‘heartbeat’ rural towns such as Mount Gambier and Portland, its extensive softwood and hardwood forests cover an area of more than six million hectares and is home to almost 20 per cent of Australia’s forestry plantations.

Wendy Fennell sits at the pointy end of the ‘Triangle’. The second-generation forester started with her family’s business 30 years ago and has steadily worked through the ranks to now lead Fennell Forestry.

Softly spoken, she prefers hard work and efficiency to self-congratulation, loves her trucks, and is passionate about her industry and safety.

Wendy’s push for greater professionalism and safety outcomes has been a key factor in transforming this humble family-owned business into an innovative industry leader and significant regional employer.

The Mount Gambier-based business is a major plantation harvesting and haulage operation, making it an important generator of jobs in this part of the world.

However, a lack of skilled drivers, combined with COVID-19 ravaging driver availability, pushed Wendy to pursue an idea she’d be working on for nearly seven years, a competency-based Multi-Combination (MC) licensing program.

An Australian-first initiative, the South Australian Government-backed program is designed to allow drivers with no prior experience the ability to get their MC licence quicker by training under the guidance of experienced mentor drivers in an authentic operational environment.

Training is conducted on the job, in the cab of Kenworth B-doubles while delivering logs from the forest to mills across the ‘Green Triangle’.

The program gets competent drivers on the road sooner, thanks to the waiving of the legislated 12 months a Heavy Combination (HC) licence holder must wait before attempting to upgrade to an MC licence.

Importantly, drivers must still be assessed by a SA Government licensing officer before a licence can be issued, as per normal process.

“I put this (MC licence program) forward around six-seven years ago now, to say why don’t we competency-base train people straight to B-double accreditation,” Wendy recalls.

“It’s crucial that because of the limited resource of skilled labour, that we remove barriers to entry. And one of the barriers to entry is the licensing process, that’s where you need to hold a semi licence for 12 months before you can progress into a B-double or Multi-Combination licence.

“So, I put it back up to the South Australian Government about two years ago, and they were prepared to come on board.”

Fennell’s case was no doubt helped by its impeccable safety record. In its 30 years of business the company’s trucks have travelled 30 million kilometres without a single accident.

Wendy says the big selling point of the program is it is competency-based, “so this is all about getting better quality drivers in the seat sooner”.

“While the driver is learning in this pilot program situation they’re doing off-road driving, they’re doing night and day driving, they’re (learning) load restraint – they’re doing all of the tasks that make up what a professional driver needs to be skilled in, then they’re sitting their licence,” she explains.

Wendy adds her one-of-a-kind training program has also delivered huge benefits to her experienced mentor drivers.

“The other benefit of the program is our mentoring drivers. So, we use the experienced drivers in my fleet to help train these trainees up. 

“We believe this gives them another level of career satisfaction, in the fact that they’re able to pass on their knowledge and skill to the next generation.

“They know the drivers coming down the road at them are skilled professional operators as well,” she says.

As of late last year, Fennell Forestry has seen eight drivers go through the program – including Mount Gambier local Joel Flier.

A HC licence holder before joining Fennell Forestry, he has worked around machinery all his life.

Like many other aspiring drivers that Wendy had met over the years, Joel believed a multi-combination driving career was out of reach due to the limited HC work opportunities available.

Deciding to try his hand with Fennell Forestry’s program, he was soon behind the wheel of one of its trusty Kenworths, learning the ropes for a total of 120 hours with an experienced driver beside him.

“I've had eight drivers through the program in 12 months. The candidates that have come on board are all people who have wanted to be in the industry but have not been able to have a pathway,” Wendy says.

“This is an experience that can’t be replicated in a training organisation, and that’s why I believe it wins out.

“We’re getting better drivers on the road sooner, by providing competency-based training and assessment across all elements of multi combination driving, helping SA lead the way to a new frontier in national driver training.”

While South Australia is the only state or territory to approve such a scheme, Wendy believes other jurisdictions should adopt similar competency-based driver licensing programs to tackle industry-wide labour shortages.

“We need to be progressive with our licensing,” she says. “You know, multi-combination trucks are a big part of our industry and by removing the barriers to licensing and training we can access a better quality of driver.

“There is a lot of review going on (around the country) but people just don’t seem to be able to get their head around how it works,” she adds. “Perhaps it’s because a lot of people don’t have the patience or time to invest, and the process has been costly, but the alternative for us wasn’t an option.”

As well as lauding the support of the SA Government, she also calls out the assistance the company receives from NTI.

“Since NTI has come on board, I really consider them as an important relationship within our business. Mainly because of the initiatives and the resource support that they have available. 

“Because they’re such a big organisation, I've really found that they’re more than just an insurance company,” she says.

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