BANGKOK—To combat a shortage of truck drivers, Thailand’s transport industry is enlisting government help to recruit young soldiers as they leave the army.
Land-logistics organizations say that the Southeast Asian country desperately needs 140,000 drivers, representing 15% to 20% of some 900,000 trucks registered to transport goods.
“We have a lot of trucks sitting in the parking lot but no driver,” said Soros Vatanasilp, director of the Land Transportation Association of Thailand, a trade organization.
The traditional method of bringing young drivers into the business—truckers’ passing on the keys to the younger generation in their families—has more or less collapsed in the past decade. Younger men who spent their childhoods sitting with their dads and uncles in the truck are becoming more educated and choosing different careers.
So the industry is seeking help from the Department of Land Transport, the country’s transportation supervisory body, to come up with alternative ways to recruit and retain professional drivers.
Their new targets? Freshly minted 20-something civilians just out of the army. Many Thai men are conscripted when they turn 21, with about 100,000 entering annually to serve for six months to two years. When the time comes to leave the service, many need a job.
“They are young, capable, and disciplined, which is an important quality for someone who will spend long hours driving on highways,” said Yoo Chienyuenyongpong of the Land Transport Federation. The three-month training program, set to begin this month at Naresuan University in the northern province of Phitsanulok, will offer some 100 hours behind the wheel of a 10-wheel truck plus classroom time devoted to topics including cross-border logistics and basic Mandarin and English. So far 40 soldiers have signed up, drawn by a package that includes a guaranteed monthly income of 20,000 baht ($640). That compares with about 15,000 baht for an entry-level government employee with a bachelor’s degree.
A further 60 soldiers participated in a pilot program earlier this year and are now driving trucks in central Thailand. The Department of Land Transport said it plans to offer similar training in other logistics hubs in Thailand’s populous northeast and along the Eastern Seaboard, home to much of the country’s foreign-owned manufacturing and its industrial ports.
‘’The number of drivers we have recruited is nowhere near what we need,” said Wattana Pattarachon, the department’s deputy director.
Thailand is suffering an overall labor shortage that has undermined sectors from garment making to construction. The unemployment rate is 0.6% from an official workforce of 38.8 million, and about 1.3 million registered migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar, fill out the labor force doing unskilled and labor-intensive manufacturing and fishing jobs. It is widely believed that the actual number of migrant workers is much larger, perhaps even 2.5 million.
For decades workers have been leaving Thailand’s farms for industrial jobs, but leaders of the land-transport industry complain that agricultural-stimulus programs are actually reversing that labor evolution by boosting farm income. The government, they say, is draining the labor pool of the farm boys it used to rely on: the ones who left the land for better opportunities elsewhere—say, plying the highways. The governor of the Bank of Thailand expressed concern last month that the trend, in large part fueled by years of increasing subsidies to farmers, could end up distorting the economy and hampering growth.
The increased number of foreign companies that have set up production base in Thailand has also heightened competition for human resources, the transport groups said. Many drivers have been lured away to drive exclusively for bigger foreign companies, or to become commuting-van chauffeurs.
Road transportation makes up of 80% of Thailand’s logistics system, with trucks hauling an average of 420 million metric tons of goods annually over the past five years. Demand is projected to rise once economic integration between the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations begins in 2015, the transportation department said, as that will increase the amount of freight flowing overland from China through Thailand and on to other Asean countries.