It’s a tough job, and pay has been squeezed for years for these drivers. Brexit and the pandemic sent many workers home. Now we all face the consequences in the form of higher bills.
The question of how to recruit and train enough lorry drivers to keep the country running has exploded into front-page news, with driver shortages creating big problems for businesses, consumers and politicians. The Road Haulage Association estimates that well over 600,000 heavy-goods vehicles (HGV) drivers usually are needed to keep UK plc running smoothly and says we’re currently about 100,000 short. That means Nando’s can’t get its chickens. McDonald’s can’t get its bottled drinks. Supermarket shelves have gaps, and retailers have been holding their lowest stock levels since 1983. In sum, the driver shortage risks slamming the brakes on Britain’s post-Covid-19 recovery and fuelling price inflation -With warnings of worse chaos to come as consumer demand peaks at Christmas.
What’s causing the shortage?
A perfect storm of long-run factors and proximate triggers has caused disruption to the supply of qualified HGV drivers, just as demand is growing strongly. The underlying issue is that lorry driving is a tough, solitary job, and not everyone can hack it. The hours are long; the working patterns are anti-social and exhausting. It costs time and money (about £3,000) to qualify for your licence, and the lifestyle is hard to combine with family responsibilities. However, in recent decades, HGV wages haven’t kept up with other sectors, where life is much easier. That means that fewer people want to do it, many drivers quit in their 30s, and the average age of lorry drivers is 55- suggesting the problem is set to worsen as a generation retires. From the mid-2000s, the influx of European workers helped disguise these fundamental issues. But the UK’s decision to leave the single market when it left the EU worsened the shortage, and the pandemic has brought things ahead.
But isn’t this a global issue?
Yes. The logistics industry has been warning of a global driver shortage since the mid-2000s due to much the same factors as here. Multinational firms have squeezed their supply chains, putting downward pressure on driver wages, and demand has increased due to the rise of e-commerce and consumer expectations of faster deliveries. According to the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport International, members in Australia and central Asia have reported HGV driver shortages of 20%. There’s a similar picture in the US, where on some measures, the situation is worse than in the UK, and Walmart recently offered to start offering starting bonuses of $8,000 to some drivers. According to Transport Intelligence, driver shortages across Europe (including the UK) total 400,000-with Germany, Poland and France all badly affected.
What is to be done?
Higher wages will help, and UK pay has already surged by around 20% in a year, according to recruiter Adzuna. That’s taken the average pay from a little over £30,000 a year ago to almost £37,000 now – meanıng HGV drivers now earn above the average full-time salary (of around £34,000). And some big employers are paying more. Waitrose, for example, is currently recruiting HGV drivers on wages of up to £53,780. Logistics company Gist, which distributes food products for M&cS, Ocado, Tesco, Aldi and Morrisons, is offering up to £56,674, plus overtime and a £2,000 signing-on and retention payment. Meanwhile, big retailers lobby the government to put lorry driving on the skilled worker shortage” occupation list, offering visas to foreign drivers. But given the similar needs and rising wages in mainland Europe, it’s not clear that would pull in sufficient numbers-and so far, the government is firmly resisting that route.
What else could ease the shortage?
Greater investment in apprenticeships and free or subsidised training to attract younger workers; cutting the time it takes to qualify; greater flexibility within companies, training workers so they can be deployed as drivers at peak periods; targeting the large pool of ex-military personnel with the relevant skills; and improved use of technology to optimise the deployment of existing labour and vehicle resources are all likely strategies, according to Violeta Keckarovska of Transport Intelligence. The government is expected to announce a shake-up of the rules for testing HGV drivers to fast-track them into the industry.
What else can we learn from the crisis?
Empty shelves in supermarkets are a message from a workforce that is usually invisible,” says Sarah O’Connor in the Financial Times. High migration combined with a weakly regulated labour market and hugely influential retailers led to unsustainably cheap goods and services. The supermarkets that are now ramping up pay are the same ones that have spent years squeezing their supply chains, including hauliers’ wages. That system “shaved money off our shopping bills, but it wasn’t resilient'”. Now, it seems, the pendulum is swinging back towards labour – meaning higher pay and higher prices for shoppers.
Kris Paterson is a writer for WhatJobs.com