24.8.2021 | Haulage

Jon Swallow on HGV driver shortage

With temporary visas dismissed by government, what’s the solution? 

With a critical driver shortage to deal with and new border checks due in the next few months, things are in danger of overheating as the economy tries to open up. The driver shortage has been a looming problem for many years, often spoken about but never addressed. Whilst Covid had a mild impact, Brexit and the withdrawal of EU labour have expedited the issue to a powerful tsunami that the average person in the street will soon feel, seemingly with no quick resolution.

Lloyds Loading List recently reported the suggestion by Logistics UK that the driver shortage could be resolved by introducing temporary visas for EU truck drivers. This could be a short-term solution but does not come without its problems.

The first and most obvious is whether these EU drivers are there or even willing to come to the UK in 2021. We don’t believe the EU workforce needed to plug the gap again is there this time, as the problem is in Europe too, and our loss has been their gain. EU drivers are now comfortably working without borders and/or closer to home. Secondly, UK drivers have seen this as an opportunity to address the very real problem of low wages, long hours and poor conditions. Fixing it with EU labour may seal the crack but kicks the problematic can down the road. And third, it doesn’t really fit the Brexit narrative. Those that professed taking back control and British jobs for British people would have a hard time explaining what’s happening.

As we start to look towards Xmas, the traditional ramp-up is looking decidedly at risk. If you add in the huge problems that continue to be experienced with Ocean carriers (a whole separate issue), we wouldn’t bank on full shelves this year.
Here Stuart Todd’s article from Lloyds written 2nd August is posted with specific comments from others in the industry.

Lloyds article

“Logistics UK is pressing the government to review its decision not to grant temporary work visas to EU HGV drivers, in the wake of mounting pressure on the UK’s supply chain caused by a lack of available delivery personnel.

The industry body’s general manager of Public Policy, Alex Veitch, explained that with a current shortage of around 90,000 drivers, the country’s highly interconnected supply chains are now under extreme stress which could be relieved in the short term by allowing EU workers back to support the domestic workforce:

“Logistics has relied on EU drivers for many years, and their loss at the start of the year as a result of Brexit has hit the sector hard. While new drivers are trained and qualified – which can take up to nine months – and DVSA works through its backlog of outstanding HGV driver tests – which we estimate could take until early 2022, it would be prudent for the government to enable temporary visas to be made available for European workers to return to supplement the domestic workforce. The government has already done this for agricultural workers through the Seasonal Worker Scheme, so the precedent has been set: and what is the point of allowing people in to pick the food, if it cannot be transported anywhere due to a lack of available staff?”

He continued: “Logistics workers, and particularly HGV drivers, have acted as the engine room of the UK’s economy throughout the pandemic, keeping homes and businesses supplied with what they need. The recent extension of drivers’ hour’s rules will not solve the problem; the recently improved Apprenticeship Standard for LGV Drivers is launching in August and will take time to have an impact, and the driver test backlog is unlikely to be cleared till the New Year.

Veitch added: “Without an interim solution while new drivers are recruited, trained and tested, the current problems experienced across the country with out-of-stock items will continue. There are simply not enough qualified personnel available to do the jobs we rely on every day – we urge the government to be pragmatic and rethink its refusal to allow temporary visas for the sake of the UK economy.”

Respect

Meanwhile, a senior company executive has called on the logistics industry “to start treating lorry drivers with the respect that they deserve” if it wants to reverse the working population’s dwindling enthusiasm for a career behind the wheel of an HGV.

Charlie Walker, head of marketing at UK-based online fulfilment specialist Walker Logistics Ltd, said the haulage sector has been struggling to attract heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers for as long as most people can remember but never has the driver shortage problem been as severe as it is now.

According to the Road Haulage Association, the UK’s HGV driver pool is currently some 100,000 down on its pre-pandemic total of around 600,000. But even before COVID, it was accepted that the industry needed to recruit at least an extra 60,000 drivers, he noted.

“While Brexit and coronavirus are getting most of the blame for the present crisis, perhaps the time has come for the supply chain sector to consider its own role in creating the driver shortage and reflect on how it might reverse the working population’s dwindling enthusiasm for a career behind the wheel of an HGV.

“The uncomfortable truth is that lorry drivers have been undervalued and treated disrespectfully for years – not only by society in general but, shamefully, by some sections of the industry in which they operate.

Driver shortage ‘only likely to get worse’

Walker highlighted that today’s HGV driver spends long hours under constant pressure from routing and scheduling planners. On arrival at an RDC, s/he will often be made to wait for “an eternity” in a small, invariably grim room (although some boast the luxury of a coffee machine) while awaiting a delivery slot.

He added that 60-hour working weeks – broken only by stops at inadequate restroom facilities – and nights spent in ‘safe and secure’ parking sites that can feel anything but safe and secure do little to add to the job’s appeal.

“And of course, for a lot of drivers, the pay isn’t terribly good: stacking shelves in the local supermarket can be more financially rewarding – and that’s a career path that comes with the added bonus of allowing you to go home and have dinner with your family and sleep in your own bed at the end of each day.

“So, for years, experienced UK drivers have drifted out of the sector, and fewer and fewer young people have been persuaded to replace them. The logistics industry has always relied on a steady supply of drivers from Eastern Europe to plug the gaps, but Britain’s withdrawal from the EU means this is no longer an option.”

Walker concluded that with nearly a third of the UK’s HGV drivers estimated to be aged 55 and over, the driver shortage is only likely to get worse in the long term unless the logistics industry can find ways to make the role more appealing.

“A good way to start the process would be to recognise that HGV drivers are absolutely vital to any successful and cost-efficient supply chain and for the logistics industry to begin treating these vital workers with the respect that they deserve.”

Final thoughts

As you can see, this article illustrates how dire the situation has become, with worse forecast. Charlie Walker from Walker Logistics clearly explains the problems with the UK haulage industry. We concur wholeheartedly having staff and friends who have relatives as drivers or are drivers themselves.

Jordon Director Jon Swallow works in schools helping students with their career decisions, and whenever he mentions HGV driving, the result is almost always negative. “I always ask, but it’s become a bit of a running joke now, kids will reply it’s a job their Grandads do, or that the future is automated (think Elon)” Jon continues “It’s hard to argue with them, the industry has an image problem that unfortunately is now not just an image, it’s reality, and people know it.”

Whatever happens next, investment is now critically needed to train new drivers, but more importantly, to create conditions and an environment that supports a new generation of proud HGV drivers. Action needs to be taken fast.

jordonfreight.com