The Road Haulage Association (RHA) has called on the government to add HGV drivers to the Home Office’s so-called ‘shortage occupation list’, to allow more drivers from overseas to fill vacancies in a bid to combat the driver shortage in the short term.
The shortage occupation list forms part of national immigration rules, and details occupations for which the government considers there are not enough resident workers in the UK to fill vacancies, such as health workers. Those applying for vacancies for occupations on the list may find it easier to obtain a visa in order to live and work in the UK.
The RHA says that adding HGV drivers to the shortage list would provide necessary short-term relief from a national shortfall of drivers, now estimated to exceed 60,000.
The association says the situation has been exacerbated by the loss of more than 30,000 vocational driving test slots last year due to Covid-19, and new IR35 tax rules that have seen some firms cancel deliveries due to an inability to recruit agency drivers at the significantly higher rates now being requested.
In a letter to the transport secretary Grant Shapps, RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said the situation was “rapidly deteriorating” and called for a cross-government meeting with delegates from the transport sector to discuss the matter.
“As you know, the skills shortage in the road transport sector has been an issue over a sustained period and is certainly impacting the UK and European market,” wrote Burnett.
“Prior to the pandemic, UK road transport businesses employed approximately 600,000 HGV drivers which included 60,000 from EU member states who were residing and working in the UK. Even with this, we estimated that the shortage of drivers exceeded 60,000.
“Since then, the shortage has significantly deteriorated as many drivers have returned to their country of origin during extended periods of lockdown and restricted travel.
“The uncertainty of Brexit and future rights to live and work in the UK have forced others to do the same – the vast majority are not expected to return.”
Burnett said the increasing number of retiring drivers had intensified the problem.
“The average age of a HGV driver is 55, with less than two per cent under the age of 25. Prolonged periods of inactivity have resulted in this ageing workforce choosing to retire early or find employment in other less demanding sectors.”
He cited one example of a top ten haulage business in terms of turnover, which “has had to park up 80 vehicles because they cannot find any drivers to drive them”, while another “has had to tell customers that they cannot do any weekend collections or deliveries”.
Said Burnett: “Following talks with the Food and Drink Federation it is evident that this is impacting the food sector enormously, and dialogue with the National Farmers’ Union has highlighted that animal feed to farms is failing, demonstrating that this problem exists right the way across the supply chain.
“Lead times for deliveries have extended from an average of 24 hours to in excess of 80 hours, and ‘On Time In Full’ (OTIF) levels have dropped from 99 per cent to 85 per cent.”
He continued: “I understand that the retail sector has suggested that a temporary relaxation of drivers’ hours regulations will help to ease the situation; however, I and the industry are not at all convinced.
“I would expect pushback from the unions as existing drivers are already working to their limits and are exhausted. We really need to consider the impact of HGV driver mental health and of course road safety.
“We need an immediate solution to this problem – we are not going to solve this now by training drivers and as such need access to global labour including European drivers. With this in mind, HGV drivers must be added to the UK shortage occupation list which is published by the Home Office.”
This, he said, would not only allow UK operators to access a wider pool of workers, but also encourage those that had left to return.
“DEFRA have existing arrangements in place which support our harvest periods where foreign labour restrictions are eased for specific demand. The same principles should be applied – without road transport we will not be able to get food from field to fork.”
However, Burnett said that further action would be required to address broader issues around the skills shortage in the longer term, including the perceived failure of the apprenticeship levy to work for the sector. He said it would be necessary to find: “a sustainable way to recruit and train a homegrown workforce, so our reliance on foreign labour falls away over time.”