Opinion is split on Immigration NZ's decision to remove truckies from its Immediate Skill Shortage List (ISSL), but most industry insiders agree New Zealand has a lack of quality drivers.
Road Transport chief executive Ken Shirley said a decision to force foreign drivers to return home at the end of the year would lead to a chronic shortage of suitable drivers.
"We have been arguing with successive governments for a number of years that we should be on the long-term list," Mr Shirley said.
"I was instead informed that truck drivers had been removed from the immediate list. Some of our members are at wit's end, desperately trying to get hold of drivers. The drivers just aren't there."
He said the shortage of quality drivers was a global problem that could soon be exacerbated by a combination of New Zealanders heading overseas for work and pointers suggesting freight might pick up as the economy strengthened.
He said foreigners made up to 15 per cent of drivers for some businesses, so the timeframe to replace them with New Zealand drivers was unrealistic.
Talks are ongoing with the Government and accelerated training and recruitment programmes would continue to increase the number of New Zealand drivers. NZL Group driver manager Laurie Royal said there was a shortage of drivers who possessed the combination of licences and abilities required to operate heavy vehicles.
"There's a definite shortage of good drivers," Mr Royal said. "There are people out there with the right licences but they can cost you a fortune in damage."
Stephen Swap, of J Swap haulage, was in the same boat.
"We haven't done much with foreign drivers," said Mr Swap.
"We've had a few guys from the UK but that's it. We're okay for drivers, but I know a couple of mates in Auckland who are importing them by the boatload."
NZL Group's approach to finding suitable drivers centres on upskilling Bay of Plenty Polytechnic graduates rather than looking offshore.
"We take on drivers from the polytech as the need arises once the groundwork has been done. We've taken on four trainees in the past 18 months. One has earned a licence to control trucks weighing up to a total of 57 tonnes, which a lot of our other drivers haven't done, and we've given him a new truck."
Mr Shirley said the changes are being driven by Work and Income, which sees drivers as low-skilled workers and, therefore, not eligible for funding that begins at NZQA Level 3.
Task-orientated professions such as truck driving are continually undervalued by academics, he said.