How to solve the driver shortage problem

In this article we consider the driver shortage problem in the commercial vehicle industry and look at ways in which operators can adapt in order to attract and retain new drivers.

Introduction

Everyone in the commercial transport industry and beyond is talking about the driver shortage problem but the temptation is for people to look at the issue from their own point of view. For instance, drivers talk about the issues that directly impact their perspective, namely wages and conditions, and operators talk about the problems of meeting regulatory standards and the issues of funding support, a lack of testing and the impact of restrictions.

It has been recognised for some time that the average age of commercial drivers is getting higher, with insufficient young people joining the industry. There are also other causes, related to low wages, managers that could do more to motivate their people or the abundance of regulation. Licence acquisition and driving training are costly and time-consuming. Some drivers have a poor work-life balance and international drivers often face danger to themselves and risks of fines if clandestine entrants are found in their lorries.

When we then take these existing and longstanding fault lines in the industry and add in the reduction to the recruitment pool and trade restrictions resulting from Britain leaving the EU and place the convenient cherry of the Covid-19 pandemic on top, we have the makings of an increasingly desperate situation that needs attention, action and some grown-up, joined-up thinking.

In order to do that we also need to reflect that the logistics industry is generally in good health. Thanks to the internet and online shopping, logistics is set to grow for the foreseeable future and over 90% of all goods moved within the UK are currently moved by road. Even with the impending upheavals of transitioning to net zero carbon emissions, we might still consider that the driver shortage problem represents one of success for the industry rather than one of decline. The biggest problem then, is that if operators or the situation do not change, then there will continue to be a growing deficit of drivers and a widening inability to fulfil orders.

How can Government and trade associations help?

  • National Government — does the industry have a shared view of the most important things that the Government can actually do to help and what are operators doing to communicate that view effectively?

  • Trade associations — is there more that trade associations can do to help and is the message from the industry being made clear? Is there a shared view across trade associations about what to do?

Recent steps by the Government have focused on the temporary relief of drivers’ hours rules and ways to speed up or make testing easier and the response from industry bodies has often been critical. How could a more productive dialogue be fostered between the different large-scale bodies involved and could positive ideas become the common tongue?

What can operators do to help solve the problem?

Operators can sit down and listen to their own people about their concerns or carry out an anonymous survey to get the real picture. Past surveys have revealed a host of common complaints from drivers which operators would do well to consider and action in their own transport businesses.

Resolve the issue of pay

A common complaint relates to pay, which is considered low for the complexity of the task. Solutions: if operators cannot be the best at pay, they can be better at something else. Operators can show that they value their drivers and do the following:

  1. Thank them for a great day’s effort

  2. Ask them their opinion on how best to run/manage the fleet or deal with a problem

  3. Give someone an “ad hoc reward” for a one-off task done really well

  4. Praise their work in front of their peer group

  5. Reward good performance with extra training/responsibility

  6. Promote someone and communicate it widely across the business.

Turn a job into a career

Most drivers when surveyed also state that driving is a job without much future. Solutions: if operators do not involve their people in their business, the people will not feel part of it. Operators can do the following:

  1. Ensure that all contracts are written, up-to-date and fit for purpose

  2. Set up employee handbooks with terms and conditions and explain them to the drivers

  3. Look at the pay arrangements to build a simple career structure Look at the local market and examine competitor and alternative employers’ employment practices to see if there is something interesting happening which they can learn from.

Get managers to be motivators

Many drivers feel they are treated merely as units of production. Solutions: the biggest role for a manager (in all industries) is motivating their staff and creating the conditions for good performance. Operators can:

  1. Put together a detailed role profile and person specification for their manager levels so they know what is expected in all areas of the role

  2. Examine the level of training that managers have for dealing with people management issues

  3. Provide an individual learning plan for each manager

  4. Encourage managers to go back out on the road for a day/night to see how it really is for the driver.

Recruit from further afield

In the really tough times, many companies are keen to recruit more foreign drivers. Solutions: this is a stop gap measure. When economic conditions pick up in the worker’s home country or because of the uncertainties of having left the EU — the worker goes home. Many foreign drivers are actually employed as agency staff and so the problem is compounded since the agency itself is, often for the operator, a stop gap measure staffed with stop gap workers. The structural driver shortage needs a structured solution.

Attract young people into the industry

It is widely acknowledged that there are too few young people joining the industry. Solutions: and it is worth putting some extra focus on this one. Operators might do the following:

  1. Set up an apprenticeship scheme for young drivers

  2. Support the acquisition of relevant licences and put retention clauses into employment contracts

  3. Go to local schools and colleges and give talks or have open days at depots

  4. Ask a young person how they would attract young people to the industry Use social media to recruit as well as build industry/company awareness

  5. Encourage the trade associations to run marketing campaigns in schools and colleges to promote the industry.

Conclusions

The trouble with the wider issue is that the different factors are not mutually exclusive. Each one is relevant to building the industry into a professional well respected and attractive career choice. Each company must decide what it can, must and will do for the future. The winners in the industry will be the ones who embrace the need for change and do something active, positive and productive.