Time to tackle the driver shortage problem

It goes without saying that this has been a difficult time for the haulage industry, with the difficulties caused by Brexit exacerbated by the unprecedented demands placed on operators and drivers by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, behind the media stories of driver delays, changing demands for Covid testing and disrupted supply, there is a longer-term problem — there are simply not enough drivers. Here we take a look at the problem and assess what can be done.

A bad problem, getting worse

The International Road Transport Union (IRU) recently published research revealing that the European freight driver shortage in 2019, already a major problem at 23%, had, just a year later, risen to 36%. In some countries the position is even worse, with Romania’s 50% driver shortage in 2019 expected to reach 62% this year.

The UK does not escape this Europe-wide lack of recruits, with a 2019 IRU survey showing that the driver shortage in its freight sector was growing by 50 drivers per day. That year the sector needed another 59,000 heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers and by 2020 the deficit had grown to 76,000. One recent report predicts that the trucker shortage could reach 257,000 by 2022 and we need to think about why this is and what can be done to remedy the situation.

Where are the young drivers?

A workforce where the average age is over 50 means that there is a regular loss to retirement and ill-health. Unfortunately, this steady reduction in experienced drivers is not matched by recruitment of younger people, partly because of lack of training opportunities. A recent report by ITV News found that there were just 74 full-time HGV examiners across the whole country. Unlike bus companies, which are allowed to test drivers themselves, HGV training schools must send trainees to official testers. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) claims that the average waiting time for it to carry out these tests was less than three weeks in 2019 but accepts that its work has been badly affected by the pandemic.

Providing more testing slots will not, however, solve the problem if young people are put off from joining the industry in the first place and, according to Logistics UK, that is certainly the case. In 2019, it found that 60% of HGV drivers were over the age of 44 and only 19% under 35. Young people were turning away from potential careers as drivers because of poor sector image including long working hours, the prospect of too much time away from home and a lack of decent facilities.

It must also be noted that the high cost of insuring younger drivers is a factor in dissuading smaller companies, operating on very tight profit margins, from taking on drivers under 25. Cost is also an issue for the drivers themselves as they could spend up to £5000 to gain their necessary licences and the Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC). Logistics UK has urged the Government to change the Apprenticeship Levy to a Skills Levy so that funds can be utilised for more flexible training programmes.

A more dramatic change has been suggested by the IRU. Highlighting the high youth unemployment rate, while 21% of truck driver positions and 19% of bus and coach driver positions in Europe are unfilled, it is calling on governments to lower the minimum age for professional truck, bus and coach drivers to 18 so that school leavers can be guided directly into professional training.

What about female drivers?

In 2013, there were 300,000 licenced HGV drivers in the UK but only 0.5% (just 1500) were women. By 2020, Logistics UK calculated that still only 1.2% of all UK commercial drivers were female. The most likely reason is the complaint mentioned above and applicable to both genders: the scarcity of parking areas in the UK with proper facilities for drivers.

There is also a safety factor, and the 2021 Theft Report from logistics insurer, TT Club highlights that, in the UK, the lack of secure parking and the use of soft-sided trailers has continued to influence cargo theft trends, with thieves increasingly targeting parked vehicles.

In 2016, the then Transport Minister promised to set up a roundtable on the HGV parking problem after warnings from the industry that a lack of suitable places for drivers to take their rests and breaks was a factor in the ongoing shortage of drivers and was particularly discouraging women from taking up the career. Little seems to have been done in the intervening five years. In January 2021, Unite’s regional officer, Phil Silkstone, reacted to complaints about lorries parking illegally in Kent by pointing out that parking provisions provided by authorities to deal with post-Brexit delays were “woefully inadequate”.

Looking at the road ahead

Before a European Parliament debate in 2018 about the EU’s “Mobility Package”, MEP Wim Van de Camp spent a night in a truck. On his return he told the Parliament that drivers should be able to sleep at ease, knowing that their vehicle is parked in a safe place and that adequate rest conditions — including the opportunity to shower and eat properly — are available. Whether this inspired his fellow MEPs is not certain but in July 2020 they voted to adopt the package arguing that the new rules would help to ensure better rest conditions and allow drivers to spend more time at home. Companies will have to organise their timetables so that drivers in international freight transport can return home every three or four weeks depending on the work schedule.

Furthermore, the mandatory regular weekly rest cannot be taken in the truck cab and, if this break is taken away from home, the company must pay for accommodation. It remains to be seen whether the UK will adopt similar measures for its drivers but, if some changes are not put in place, it is hard to see how the industry will attract the younger or more diverse workforce it needs.