The shortage in commercial goods drivers across the UK is now in plain sight; with empty shelves in the shops and closed petrol stations.
How have we got into this mess and what can done about it – will there be a route out of the crisis any time soon?
The current crisis has been attributed to Brexit (the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport UK say a third of HGV drivers from the EU drivers quit the UK in last year), IR35 putting paid to self-employed agency driving, the pandemic and the impact of the lockdowns.
Anyone with any practical knowledge of the road haulage sector will tell you that the storm clouds have been gathering for years, during which time the number of vacancies and the age profile of vocational drivers has been increasing – from 48 to 56 in three years. Attempts to attract younger recruits have self-evidently failed thus far.
The extent of the problem varies depending on who you listen to. At present it seems there are around 90,000 driver vacancies. Are there that many people in the UK who are even willing to think about a driving career?
Some of the better informed commentators take the view that the issue needs to be addressed systemically from the bottom up and practically given the urgency.
Vocational driving is a difficult job and it is equally difficult to get and retain the qualification to do it. The licencing system is complex and the costs of qualification can be prohibitive. Candidates must meet the DVLA medical standard, pass theory and hazard perception tests and Driver Standards Agency case studies, not to mention practical training and the ongoing rigours of Drivers’ Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) requirements. Vocational driving and operations are also subject to the Traffic Commissioner’s oversight.
A driver must keep within the complex rules and regulations applicable to his day to day duties while in the cab and elsewhere. These can be difficult to get used to and easy to contravene, covering as they do drivers’ hours regulations, working times requirements, and in the normal scenario health and safety and road traffic regulations.
Logistics and road haulage in particular are low margin businesses – often operating on little over 1% margins. There is therefore very little ability to pay drivers more without the cost being passed up the supply chain – ultimately to consumers. In the short term, operators may well find themselves caught between two stools.
Assuming that there is a potential workforce out there ready willing and able to fill the gaps, the industry needs help to get them behind the wheel.
Work could be done in restricting the financial burden on applicants and operators who put drivers through the test/ application processes.
In many areas in the regulatory sphere exemptions and discounts apply – lessons are there to be learned.
Exemptions from the requirement to hold the vocational entitlement are not new to the sector. At present there no fewer than 20 separate exemptions from vocational driver licencing to do with type of “large goods vehicle” being used and the use to which it is being put.
Exemption for alternatively fuelled vehicles up to 4.25 tonnes driven by Licence holders on a category B licence was issued in April 2019. Changes have already been made to the categories of ordinary licence holders permitted to tow trailers. There is more that can be done in this regard clearly.
In the main the Operators are ingenious. They and their workforces are not unfamiliar with adversity. Consider the lockdown and how it looked for the supermarket shelves at the beginning and how it was resolved with hard work and assistance in terms of temporary relaxations from the regulator in respect of driver hours, working times, and the fast track extensions to authorised vehicle fleets.
Where there is a will, we have already seen the way in the past 18 months. If the operators are involved in the system to the extent their experience allows the sector will cope fine in the short term – they have done it before and they can do it again.
But we need permanent solutions. Increasing DVSA capacity, immigration reform, government initiatives are all very well but once again we must go to the coal face.
Some less reputable operators denigrate “drivers” – they are seen as necessary evils and there is often an inclination to blame them rather than take responsibility for the management failures when things go wrong. While the regulator can only go so far in protecting these professional people there does need to be a change in how we, the public, view them and how they are treated by those who employ them.
During the pandemic drivers were seen as essential workers. As we can now see however they were always essential to us all and it’s about time we wakened up to that and act accordingly.
The trade press occasionally records the view of HR and recruitment specialists waxing lyrical as they often do, about encouraging the young in to the sector. They have a point. Lorry drivers are the folk devils on the road and this societal attitude needs to change. Only then is there likely to be any decent prospect of their numbers increasing long term.
When in the public’s mind lorry drivers become, let’s say, “professional drivers” or “logistics specialists” and are paid in accordance with their responsibilities and skills the profession will become more attractive with all the benefits which will naturally flow from that.