- National Transport Insurance
Truck Licensing: Changing the way you think, in pink.
With the support of industry partners including NTI and Volvo Group Australia, Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls is all about hands-on truck driver training, putting new or newly licensed drivers in a truck with senior drivers to learn the ropes over a month-long period.
Pilbara-based truck driver and truck driver training innovator Heather Jones is a legend of sorts in the west.
A truckie of 35 years, she has been the subject of countless news and media articles, a voice for change in the industry, and drives an attention-grabbing pink Mack Superliner and Volvo FH.
Her views on the industry and truck driver licensing and training are simple: let’s train our truck drivers better and include a few more women while we’re at it.
On a recent trip to Western Australia, we caught up with Heather and some of the trainees from her Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls program.
Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls is Heather’s passion for the industry personified, a training program she started to help train women – and men – in the skills necessary to be able to drive and operate a rig on the road.
The Early Days
Why is she so passionate about truck driver training? It was Heather’s first experiences as a relatively inexperienced driver nearly 35 years ago that shaped her outlook and vision for the industry.
“I was given a truck and told to drive 700 kilometres away,” she recalls. “Old mate came out and gave me a bar and said you’ll need this if you get a flat tyre, here are the keys and off you go.
“That was pretty much my truck driver training. A few years later, I went to a fairly big company in Perth and was handed the keys to a Kenworth - I’d never driven a Kenworth before, I’d only driven old Mercedes and Volvo and I couldn’t work out how to release the brakes.
“After playing with the red and the yellow button I finally decided to jump on the two-way and I called out to thousands of males who were listening to ask if someone could help me release the brakes on my Kenworth.
“It was very mortifying for me, I copped a fair bit of flack over that, but because of that experience, I started our family company so that we could have a pathway for new-to-the-industry drivers.”
After running her own transport company, dabbling in everything from tippers to heavy haulage and even some general freight, in 2014-15 Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls was born.
“There were about 30 women up here in Karratha at that time, some with their own trucks, and we all got together and devised a plan of how we should tackle the problem to attract women to the industry and to train them properly so really, that’s where Pilbara Heavy Haulage was born,” she says.
Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls’ students come to Karratha where they will spend a month or two, in two-week blocks, undertaking truck driver training. There, they will be part of the real transport team, arriving every day for a 4:30-5:00am start, and will hop onboard with a senior truck driver for a day’s work.
Classroom days are essential. Drivers will learn about fatigue, truck requirements and specific jobs as well as axle weights and driving skills.
There is also a tyre fitter who teaches the students how to change tyres, spiders and 10 studs, and how to do it safely and the “girls’ way”.
“From there, we get them out on the road for the next six days, all around the Pilbara (sometimes further), where we get them operating side tippers, end tippers, tankers, general freight, oversize and even a day in in the pilot vehicle.
“Whatever work we have, the new-to-the-industry driver will do,” she says.
Truck-wise, Pilbara Heavy Haulage students find themselves behind the wheel of the renowned ‘Pink Trucks’, courtesy of Volvo Group Australia.
“We formed a relationship with VGA in 2016, who helped us with these two trucks, which are fantastic,” she says.
“For our truck driver training, we use our (pink) Mack Superliner and our Volvo FH. They're both automatic and I’ve found that over the years, as people have gone away from being really mechanically minded, and in tune with gear changes and revs, to start off with an automatic is a lot safer.
“It’s also a lot easier,” she adds. “After about 12 months the driver has the license to be able to upgrade them to a manual transmission if they so desire.
“Our Mack Superliner is amazing for line-haul work and really great to live in, it has amazing visibility. And the Volvo is fantastic for all our tight work - we do a lot of wharf work, and the tight turning circle of the Volvo is perfect for that.”
A Family Affair
A family business, Heather’s two daughters Kersti and Chelsea were brought up in the industry. Their unique childhood saw them live a life on the road, be home-schooled from the truck, and learn valuable lessons about their future careers at the same time.
“Because Kersti and Chelsea spent most of their life in the truck with me, they’ve got a pretty solid foundation of the industry – the do’s and don’ts and the needs of the industry as well,” Heather said.
“They (Kersti and Chelsea) plan to take over the family business soon. Kersti has her MC licence and Chelsea’s getting her HR licence.
“Kersti also has a transport pilot’s licence and she pilots our oversize loads. I think it’s important that people who are in the industry, or those who make decisions, really do have some hands-on experience so that they do understand how the industry operates.”
Despite women drivers in the transport industry only accounting for roughly four per cent of the workforce, Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls has trained more than 200 of them.
“I don’t have a specific number written down, but we’ve trained around 220 women and about 45 young men,” she says.
Of those 200-plus students, one stands out. “We had a young girl from a farming family who came up to Karratha when she was only 23 years of age. She did her month-long training boot camp with us and we ended up employing her here for a few years,” she says.
“Of all the people I've had come through our training program, she would be the absolute best - 23 years old, had grown up on the farm and was familiar with farm machinery, and was just an absolute pleasure.”
As a veteran of over 35 years and a passionate supporter of the transport industry, Heather believes life in a truck should entice more like her 23-year-old stand-out student
“I've experienced the utmost pleasure and the utmost acceptance in the industry by the men,” she explains.
“I absolutely love it, it’s such a fantastic place to work as well – financially it’s also enticing … you don’t need to go to university to be able to earn between $120,000 and $150,000 a year in this industry.
“I don't know of many occupations where you can go and do that,” she adds. “Yes, there is still plenty to be done in the training space, in fatigue regulations, and healthier food, that really needs urgent attention by both government and industry.
“If we bring new mindsets and young people into the industry - that truly think differently - we can change a lot of the issues that we have.”
Heather Jones and her Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls program can be found in Karratha, Western Australia.