The supply of truck drivers to the UK transport industry is improving thanks to higher wages, but questions are being raised by the Freight Transport Association and others about the impact of Brexit on the recruitment and retention of staff from the European Union.
An independent report, Driver Shortage: Issues and Trends, commissioned by the Freight Transport Association from researchers RepGraph Ltd, calculates that the shortfall between the number of registered large goods vehicles and the number of qualified drivers is now 34,567, back to what the FTA describes as the ‘pre-crisis’ level of 2012.
The much-needed increases in drivers’ wages – now said to be running at twice average inflation – is acknowledged as a positive force, although much of the improvement in earnings is attributed to overtime and bonuses, indicating that a ‘long hours’ culture is still prevalent in the industry.
The FTA says it will publish new editions of the report every six months.
There is still no room for complacency: the FTA points out that only 530 individuals giving their occupation as truck driver were registered as unemployed in August, which is traditionally a slack time for goods transport. This leaves little surplus capacity as demand for transport services rises towards the end of the year.
As well as uncertainty over Brexit, FTA highlighted poor roadside facilities for drivers and the high cost of licence acquisition as having negative impacts on recruitment and retention.
FTA deputy chief executive James Hookham said: “The report highlights the industry’s reliance on EU nationals, with more than 30,000 – 10 per cent of the entire driver workforce – currently employed in the UK.
“The uncertainty about their employment rights and status once Britain leaves the EU is a major concern for businesses. We urge the government to ensure its Brexit negotiations afford special status to logistics and allow for this employment to continue so that the industry is not hit by another driver shortage crisis.
“We also need better roadside facilities – especially if we are going to attract more women into the industry – and more help from government with the cost of acquiring a vocational licence, which is often cited as a barrier to recruitment.”
The report shows the average age of newly-qualified drivers is 34 (compared with 48 for the overall driver population) meaning over half of those who took an LGV driving test last year were under the age of 35. Women have a better pass rate than men.
Independent transport analyst Kirsten Tisdale, who has previously highlighted an abundance of qualified drivers working in other occupations for reasons mostly linked to pay and conditions, has said that Brexit may offer an opportunity to make the industry more attractive by reforming drivers’ hours regulations.
“Before EU drivers’ hours regulations came along, the Transport Act of 1968 restricted the driver’s working day to 12.5 hours through what was referred to as ‘spreadover,’” she recalled.
“And that was the case up until the amendments in 1986, which abolished the 1968 limits on driver duty when a driver was covered by EC rules – the new provisions on rest periods within the EC rules were seen as effectively limiting the hours for which a driver could be on duty.
“In 2005 the Working Time Directive was applied to the road transport industry, with the very weak interpretation of periods of availability (PoAs) that was adopted in the UK. And that weak interpretation was accompanied by a casual approach to its use, in many ways turning what should have been protective legislation into just another administrative task.
“However, until 2007, any reduction in daily rest from 11 to 9 hours still had to be made up by the end of the following week. After EC regulation 561/2006 was introduced in April 2007, no rest compensation was required.
“Could a return to the past regime be helpful?” she asked.
“Certainly pay would need to reflect the change as drivers would still have the same rent to pay and families to feed. It would not be an easy pill for industry to swallow.
“But I’m interested in how much could be made up for by efficiencies: reducing PoAs, which are often effectively an admission of wasted driver time. Would limiting the length of the working day back to the 12.5 hour spreadover help to make the job more attractive?
“That change in April 2007 means that each and every week can include three 15-hour days. And after each of those 15-hour days, the driver needs to travel home, eat and say goodnight, before sleeping for a few hours and then getting up again …quite probably at what I’ve seen described as stupid o’clock.
“Would you want to work those hours?”