Highway is not worth the risk
By CRAIG McTEAR
JOANNE Hickey wouldn't be able to sleep at night if she sent her staff on frequent trips along the Pacific Highway.
That's why she refuses to engage two young labourers at her Coffs Harbour firm as apprentice plasterers, because that would involve them driving on the highway to either Newcastle or Sydney over a four-year period as part of their training.
Joanne believes the highway is far too dangerous and she is not prepared to put their lives at risk.
She and her partner, Michael Canning, own Ballyness, which specialises in commercial interior fit-outs.
Recognising there are many unskilled workers in the region, they wanted to be able to offer their two labourers a chance to gain plastering qualifications and investigated what training was available here.
To their disappointment, in-quiries at Coffs Harbour TAFE revealed such courses were not offered here and the closest ones were at Newcastle and Sydney.
Not only would the trips be costly exercises, but more importantly, the thought of the young men travelling on the highway made her skin crawl.
"We're not going to send them driving down there for four years. I would have trouble sending them on the highway wondering if they would make it back or not," Joanne said.
"I just couldn't do that. I couldn't be responsible for something going wrong.
"I know I wouldn't want to be driving up and down the highway regularly for the next four years."
The Coramba mother-of-two is all-too-familiar with the highway and the dangers it presents.
She drives to Woolgoolga a couple of times a week to visit her parents, and makes trips to Sydney two or three times a year.
"I'm just really cautious all the time," she said.
"On the one hand, you've got the Federal Government jumping up and down about the shortage of skilled labour, but on the other hand, employers who want to offer apprenticeships are being frustrated by the lack of courses in regional areas.
"If these two employees of mine want to do a plastering course, it appears they might have to move away. Living away from home on an apprentice's wage would be really difficult."
The member for Coffs Harbour, Andrew Fraser, said it was clear the 'parlous state' of the Pacific Highway was severely affecting the awarding of apprenticeships and traineeships on the North Coast.
"It is incumbent on the (State) Government to either provide the TAFE courses that are needed for these young apprentices and trainees locally, or subside their travel costs in order that they are not disadvantaged, nor employers on the North Coast, because of the delays in upgrading the Pacific Highway ..." he said.
"I know of one case where a road construction trainee is now being assisted by his parents to fly to Sydney for his course as neither he, nor his parents, are prepared to risk his life on a monthly basis on the Pacific Highway.
"This action has created a huge financial impost on both him and his mother and father."
n The NSW Legislative Council arrives in Coffs Harbour today to conduct a public inquiry into the Pacific Highway.
All concerned community members are encouraged to attend.
Public hearings will be held at the Coffs Ex-Services Club from 10.30am, with a number of local residents selected to appear as witnesses.