Opinion: why ‘trampers’ are an endangered species

By Categories: NewsPublished On: Saturday 10 December 2016

Researcher and supply chain risk expert David Hogarth, formerly an international LGV driver, says the general call for more drivers is too vague an appeal.

Why won’t the road transport industry identify exactly which category of driver the industry is short of?

By now the industry should be directing its resources towards attracting recruits where they are needed most. The government deserves to know precisely which categories are critically short of drivers so it can assist in improving conditions for the current and future workforce.

Are employers struggling to find articulated lorry drivers, rigid drivers, multi-drop, day workers, night trunkers, or so-called ‘trampers’ – long-distance artic drivers away from home for long periods, who routinely sleep in their cabs?

You’ve only to read the transport press to gauge that ‘tramping’ supply drivers experience dreadful conditions.

Trampers are on the front line for low pay, long hours and fall under constant exposure to poor treatment. Not surprisingly the role is generally seen by young people as not so much a job but a way of life for divorced, grey-haired old men. There’s a decisive reason for that.

When the Department of Transport split the LGV test into two parts in 1997, it effectively polarised the driving community. By and large, young drivers started taking day jobs driving rigids, and the older trampers plodded on. But why was this so?

One explanation is that the 1997 split test was perfectly timed to coincide with the rise in service industries, requiring local multi-drop distribution networks. The onward trend in vehicle sales reflects this. The sale of rigid vehicles has subsequently risen as the sale of tractor units has declined.

There is also a more contemporary explanation. Young lorry drivers were attracted to the lifestyle that driving a rigid would afford them. It got them home every night, and distribution drivers aren’t as challenged by the poor treatment and shocking facilities often mistakenly associated with afflicting all ‘lorry drivers’.

Many local distribution drivers don’t even consider themselves to be ‘truckers’ or wish to live in its image.

A key point is that young distribution drivers are from successive generations where both parents are expected to work. The modern lifestyle centres on the home. Day job drivers are more able to participate in childcare and housekeeping responsibilities, for example.

Trampers, on the other hand, represent ominous role models. They are breadwinners, and rely on their partner, if they have one, to undertake the bulk of childrearing and managing the house and finances. Their children have long since grown up and often moved away.

Some trampers are unfortunately ‘job-ruined’. Their lives have fallen apart due to the demands of the job. Others consider the lorry a roof over their head.

Tragically, tramping has seen a minority of drivers slide completely off-grid and become lost to the system. Trampers therefore live in a completely different world to young local distribution drivers.

Location is also a factor. Trampers predominately originated from small towns and villages when road transport was based in the country. Today’s young drivers are metropolitan. They live and work in the city outskirts or around strategic motorway junctions where industries compete for talent.

The turnover of young tramping drivers and even older drivers who come from a day job background is worryingly high. Older trampers in their 50s and 60s started driving when tramping was the norm.

Young drivers no longer feel committed to this type of work to earn a living. The variety of driving work has grown alongside the demands of the increasingly diverse economy.

If you accept that the driving community does have a demographic split, then this belief throws a brick through current driver-licence-age statistics.

There is a tendency to believe that any driver will fill any vacancy. This is not true. Drivers are quite specific about which geographical role they will undertake, regardless of the licence they hold.

The factors which determine their commitment are not based solely on supply and demand. Instead the factors are more complex. Drivers rank jobs by the number of nights out per week, their exposure to poor customer treatment, wages, employer support, quality of vehicle and work-body clock ratio to name a few.

It may surprise employers to hear that, when drivers talk among themselves, it’s treatment first, money second. But apart from weighing up these factors, what else puts young people off tramping?

Trampers, through little fault of their own, represent the ‘industry image’ that potential recruits recoil from.

Whether the industry likes it or not, the industry image is tramping. Lines of trucks squeezed into broken up laybys or huddled together on dingy industrial estates. Tractor units backed up to huge concrete bollards scattered around dark unfinished distribution parks. Muddy, damp and dirty, with no toilet and a 2.30am start.

There’s a difference between hard work and hard living.

Trampers inhabit a 24/7-365 nationwide service, mainly for supermarket and lifestyle customers. Basically, they load bulk produce from a supplier and deliver it to supermarket and retail customers’ regional distribution centres (RDCs). Their contribution would not go unnoticed.

The top nine supermarkets have approximately 150 RDCs between them. Adopting a conservative fifty-week year, the annual number of tramper deliveries to these sites is, give or take, about 4.5 million. It’s at this point where the harmony grinds to a halt.

Customers could do more to make tramping attractive to new recruits. They have a habit of detaining drivers in haphazard ‘custody suites’ – which could be corridors, former staff kitchens or literally sheds.

When the subject of facilities is raised, the spotlight falls on ‘roadside’ facilities and not facilities available at customer premises. On-site staff hygiene facilities are often modern, abundant and scarcely used by incumbent employees. But regardless, they are off-limits to visiting drivers.

Besides, when a tramper visits an RDC they often won’t come in to contact with an employee of the customer. Instead, the tramper is dealt with by an employee of the transport and logistics company that runs the distribution centre.

There’s no corporate social responsibility or vision to speak of regarding improving the lorry driver’s world, except for providing snack-filled vending machines.

Trampers need access to existing customer facilities as much as they need improved roadside facilities. A brand new, all-singing-and-dancing truckstop isn’t much use to the army of trampers who, for operational reasons, must congregate around suppliers’ premises or RDCs every night.

The most contentious customers run ‘self-tip’ warehouses. Any lorry driver who turns up at a budget supermarket RDC is expected to undertake a warehouseman’s role. There are no exceptions. The old, infirm and sick drivers must muck in and unload their own trailer because there’s no-one else to do it.

Some drivers don’t mind, but it’s not them the industry needs to impress – it’s the absent new potential recruits. The confusion is plain to see. On the one hand a driver is a well-trained, skilled professional, and on the other hand an expendable dogsbody.

The cumulative effect of customers’ actions on drivers is difficult to overestimate. Sadly, it’s often logistics companies that dish it out.

Supermarket and retail companies will need more trampers as they expand. The total stock of current tramping articulated lorry drivers has about ten to fifteen years to go. However, a critical mass is required to keep the system going, so operations will be affected long before they all disappear.

Regrettably, it would seem that young people living in a modern progressive society have little enthusiasm for this self-sacrificing lifestyle choice.

Lorry drivers born in 1990 make up only two per cent of the current driving sector. When all the trampers have retired, this two per cent of reinforcements will be forty years of age. It’s unknown how many of them hold an articulated lorry licence or are prepared to tramp.

If a species disappears from an ecosystem there is a knock-on effect. Tramping lorry drivers are the worker bees of the road transport ecosystem. The sting here is that the industry image they live in is the image the road transport industry has created all by itself. It’s an image that has been very resilient to progress.

But however awful, tramping is an acceptable consequence of keeping the shelves stocked. Trampers consequently experience a continuous and remorseless cycle of neglect.

This is the hidden ‘industry image’ the industry won’t advertise and broadcast to potential young recruits.

To the outside world, it’s an outdated relic, like lighthouse men, steam engines, travelling post offices and saluting AA motorcycle riders. Progress did away with them, too.

You could say the same of mining. If the collieries reopened, how many young people would be clamouring to go down them? The road transport industry isn’t alone. The construction, oil, gas and care industries are all having similar recruitment problems.

Young people don’t need to resort to dramatic jobs like tramping. Older trampers say that young people fear hard work, but you won’t find many old trampers who swept chimneys or spent time in a workhouse.

It soon becomes apparent to anyone who enquires that, to attract new recruits, the industry needs to examine whether tramping really is having a negative impact on recruitment.

It’s quite astonishing to think that anyone working within the road transport industry would assume that tramping is attractive to young people, and that young drivers would freely take it up knowing the consequences. There is overwhelming evidence that despite taking government money to train, young people are reluctant to tramp.

It’s about time the industry and their customers faced facts. Without significant improvements in facilities and working conditions – and the treatment by those they serve – few young people will consider tramping to be a viable employment option – calling into question the future of supermarket distribution networks as they currently exist.

As it stands, tramping is an outdated role and belongs in a museum. Let’s be honest – driving isn’t the problem. Tramping is.

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