Wednesday 22 September 2021

Industry calls for aid as driver shortage hits ‘crisis point’

 

As the shortage of HGV drivers reached what the Road Haulage Association (RHA) described as a ‘crisis point’, road transport industry representatives were warning of continued supermarket supply issues over the summer months as Transport Operator‘s July/August edition closed for press.

This article was originally published 5 July; some references to regulations may be outdated.

In late June the government held talks with logistics industry representatives, as well as their customers from the retail and wholesale sectors, in a bid to identify potential solutions to the current difficulties fleets are experiencing in recruiting drivers.

The discussions came amid reports from retailers that some short-life produce was being wasted and having to be binned as a result of an inability to obtain drivers to transport it.

There were signs that some elements of government were considering action to help alleviate the situation. Meetings with officials from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) were described as “very constructive” by the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, and measures such as drivers’ hours relaxations were reportedly discussed.

But the government had earlier appeared resistant to suggestions that it should relax immigration rules for foreign HGV drivers (Transport Operator, June), which would make it easier for hauliers to recruit an intake from Europe to fill the current gaps in domestic driver availability.

On 23 June the Road Haulage Association (RHA) took the step of writing to the prime minister Boris Johnson directly, warning that critical supply chains were failing due to a significant shortage of HGV drivers.

The letter, from RHA chief executive Richard Burnett, was co-signed by senior executives from numerous major players in the transport industry, including Eddie Stobart, Wincanton, Culina Group, XPO Logistics, Samworth Brothers Supply Chain, The Malcolm Group and Kuehne + Nagel –

as well as representatives of a variety of other bodies such as food and drink trade groups.

Citing a shortfall of drivers numbering over 100,000, the letter claimed that the shortage “is now at crisis point”.

“We are urgently writing to ask for your personal intervention to help resolve the significant and rapidly deteriorating shortage of HGV drivers,” it said.

“We are grateful to ministers from the Departments for Transport, and Work and Pensions, who have met with us to discuss solutions, but it is clear, despite best intentions, that there is no immediate plan.

“We firmly believe that intervention from the prime minister/Cabinet Office is the only way that we will be able to avert critical supply chains failing at an unprecedented and unimaginable level.

“Supermarkets are already reporting that they are not receiving their expected food stocks and, as a result, there is considerable wastage.

“To make the situation even worse, summer holidays are fast approaching, and drivers will take their leave entitlement. The lack of agency drivers to help support their absence will exacerbate the problem even further, as will continued unlocking of the economy and the spikes in demand for food and drink created by the hot weather and major sporting events. Furthermore, the Christmas build that retailers begin in August/September will be seriously affected – all of which will affect government’s ability to ‘build back better’.”

Mr Burnett cited an exodus of foreign drivers due to Covid and Brexit, prolonged inactivity leading to drivers retiring early or seeking employment outside the sector, the significant limitations on driving test provision last year, and the introduction of the new IR35 regulations, as exacerbating factors in the crisis.

Among the proposed amel-iorative measures, both the RHA and Logistics UK have called for temporary worker or seasonal visa schemes for foreign drivers, similar to arrangements already in place for agricultural workers.

Logistics UK chief executive David Wells said: “Without temporary visa status for the drivers to move this food to where it is needed, the supply chain will break down at the first hurdle. The [agricultural and transport] sectors work hand in hand and should be treated in the same way.”

There have also been calls for HGV drivers to be added to the Home Office ‘shortage occupation list’ to encourage intake from abroad.

But in mid-June the Home Office said the government had “no plans to introduce a seasonal visa scheme for HGV drivers in the UK”, adding that “employers should focus on investing in and offering rewarding packages to our domestic workforce… rather than relying on labour from abroad” – while the Department for Transport said most solutions to the shortage were “likely to be commercial and from within industry”, citing factors such as improving pay, conditions and diversity.

But transport industry repres-entatives were warning that the pressure to raise driver wages in order to attract new recruits would force hauliers to pass the costs on to customers, leading to supermarket price hikes.

In addition to a reiteration of the request for relaxations around access to EU and EEA labour, further measures called for in the RHA-led letter to the prime minister included the establishment of a government and industry taskforce to help address the broader issues around the skills shortage, focused on “recruiting and training a homegrown work-force so that our reliance on foreign labour dissipates over time”. It also advocated the re-establishment of the DEFRA Food Resilience Industry Forum, which was recently dis-banded following its work in ensuring supply chain integrity at the height of the pandemic.

The letter concluded: “It is our collective view that there has never been a more challenging time for this industry and we urge you to take these decisive steps to ensure that we can continue to maintain the UK’s integrated and finely balanced supply chains.”

Meanwhile, RHA managing director of policy and public affairs Rod McKenzie said the government also needed to prioritise clearing the backlog of HGV driving tests, in order to avoid gaps in retailer product availability.

“We think that at a time like this, lorry drivers – who are essential workers – deserve to be pushed to the top of the queue,” he told the BBC last month.

Elsewhere, the latest report from recruitment agency Driver Require’s Think Tank – The Answer to the UK’s HGV Driver Shortage – has estimated that over 150,000 newly licensed truck drivers aged under 40 have left the industry in the last decade.

The Driver Require Think Tank has members drawn from employers’ groups, transport operators, and other figures including senior employees or directors of companies offering leasing, training and consultancy services. It is led by Kieran Smith, CEO of Driver Require Ltd.

The report estimates that the cost of licence acquisition for each driver averages at around £3,000, meaning that potential truck drivers have wasted a total of over half a billion pounds in 10 years on licences that they do not use for gainful employment in the industry.

“It is shocking that all the good work attracting candidates is squandered by a lack of action to retain these drivers in the workforce after they have passed their test,” the Think Tank said.

It also warns that the ageing of the current driving workforce is seeing a net depletion of the number of working drivers of around 6,000 drivers a year.

In an earlier report (Tran-sport Operator, June), the Think Tank outlined the seriousness of the driver shortage, in broad agreement with employers’ bodies such as Logistics UK and the RHA, and set out three strategies to address it: increasing UK driver training capacity, attracting UK vocational licence-holders back to the industry, and possibly permitting EU citizens to work as truck drivers in the UK.

It now says that the industry needs to ask itself, as a priority, “How can we fundamentally and significantly improve HGV driver retention to reverse the depletion of our HGV driver workforce?”

The Think Tank acknowledges that it is largely for the UK haulage sector to solve its own problems, but also says it should call on assistance from government and regulatory bodies. It wants funding for operators and training schools, or specially-created bodies, to nurture newly-qualified drivers. This could be associated with the HGV Apprenticeship Programme.

A much better understanding should be reached of why so many licence holders don’t drive for a living, it says, which could then inform ways of attracting certain groups back into driving.

Funding could be made available for returning drivers to cover the cost of a refresher course, Driver CPC and lost wages, perhaps in conjunction with training schools, the report said; while inexperienced and returning drivers’ wages could be funded for their first few weeks to enable employers to bring them up to full professional standard.

It cautions that getting truck driving classified as a shortage occupation to allow drivers from the EU to work in the UK may not be effective, as there is a driver shortage in continental Europe as well.

“Underlying all the above is a need to dramatically improve working conditions for our HGV drivers,” it warns. “Significant investment is needed in truckstop facilities and roadside services, as well as the provision of secure and well serviced overnight parking facilities.”

The report suggested bring-ing the RHA and Logistics UK together “in an initiative to identify, document and publicise best practice exam-ples of HGV driver engagement and retention initiatives by their haulage client members.”

Negotiating with insurers or representative bodies to reduce limitations on the age of HGV drivers, perhaps via a training or assessment route, was also posited – as was offering bus drivers “the ability to cheaply and quickly convert their category D licence into a category C (rigid HGV) licence”, thereby providing a fresh intake from the pool of bus and coach drivers who are currently not working due to a drop in public transport and coach operations.

The report – available at www. driverrequire.co.uk/insights – also highlights a variety of research pertaining to the reasons HGV drivers may be abandoning driving as a career, from both employers’ and drivers’ perspectives.

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