HGV driver shortage: UK firms embark on the long road to plug the gap

Logistics sector ups its recruitment and training effort but big obstacles lie ahead

For an insight into the hottest spot in Britain’s jobs market, an industrial estate on the outskirts of Bristol is a good place to start.

There, at a logistics depot on Royal Portbury Dock at the mouth of the River Avon, apprentices are making the leap from an array of jobs to becoming HGV drivers.

Many of the twentysomethings who are answering the call for young people to join the booming and acutely short-staffed logistics sector are lured by the prospect of a lifelong career – and soaring wages. “There is an opportunity to earn good money,” said Maykal Petrov, 27, a former warehouse worker originally from Bulgaria.

Across the road from the warehouse, another logistics firm, Gist, which drives for Marks & Spencer, is fighting over the same pool of workers. A sign at its depot entrance, urging people to “drive for us”, offers £5,000 “sign-up and retention” bonuses.

Long viewed as an unglamorous industry, where drivers toiled away in the background on unsociable hours that kept them away from their families for days at a time, trucking has burst into the public consciousness.

The acute shortage of HGV drivers has become a flashpoint in the UK’s staffing crisis, leading to gaps on supermarket shelves and a string of warnings from large businesses including McDonald’s, Nandos and Coca-Cola about shortages of stock and even forced closures of their outlets.

The shift to online shopping accelerated by the pandemic has created an insatiable appetite for drivers, warehouse workers and other staff to keep the logistics industry on the road. Yet this growing need for a bigger pool of qualified drivers has collided with a staffing squeeze, after many EU drivers went back to their home countries, in part because of Covid and Brexit.

The shortfall is estimated to stand at 100,000 drivers by the Road Haulage Association (RHA), while the existing workforce is ageing fast. The average age of a UK driver is 50 and the industry body is warning that about a third of the UK’s 380,000 drivers may retire within the next five years. The squeeze is predicted to get worse, and there are warnings that there may be gaps on shop shelves come Christmas. The food and drink industry has called on ministers to introduce a short-term visa scheme to recruit overseas workers, including HGV drivers, to ease disruption in the food supply chain.

At the Portbury warehouse, owned by a customer of the logistics firm Wincanton, apprentices are queueing up to get behind the wheel. The company has run an apprenticeship scheme since 2017, but never before on the current scale of 128 participants.

There, they learn the ropes in logistics while the firm funds their HGV driver training and the tests required to gain a driving licence. After a year, provided they have passed their tests, the apprentices are guaranteed a job driving lorries.

Wincanton hopes the scheme will go some way towards filling its current 600 driver vacancies, 13% of its 4,700-strong workforce of drivers, as well as a fast-track driver training scheme for current staff, or people who may already have some driving experience.

“It’s harder for our managers to find the flexible workforce to be able to ensure that we are providing for our customers,” said Jo Pick, people director for operations at Wincanton.

“But we are working really hard to fill all of those gaps and what we really want to focus a lot of our time and attention on is moving people through our apprenticeships as well as through the fast track.”

The firm is also looking to recruit people into the industry who may not have considered a career in driving, including former offenders. They are also targeting women, who currently represent just 2% of the driver workforce.

“A lot of the movement in the industry recently has been just moving the same driver population around different companies, so we want to focus on trying to stop that merry-go-round and increase the driver workforce overall,” Pick says.

“Historically, recruitment for drivers would typically have been done through job boards for experienced drivers who know where to go. But we do want to reach broader markets. We are using social media more broadly, we are advertising in service stations where car or taxi drivers are driving through.”

Haulage veterans say drivers are being offered salaries in £40,000s and £50,000s as companies struggle to retain drivers, but warn that is not sustainable with average industry margins of about 2%. All that has prompted questions about whether it could lead to higher inflation – bleeding through to supermarket prices and higher wage demands more widely.

Stuart Macintyre is one of those who has traded office life, and a stint volunteering as a special constable at Greater Manchester police, for a career in driving. At the start of 2020, the 26-year-old from Rochdale didn’t even have a licence to drive a car, only passing his test just before the pandemic put a halt to driving tests.

Almost five months into his apprenticeship with Wincanton, Macintyre has passed his class 2 HGV licence, which allows him to drive lorries up to 33 tonnes. He aims to get his class 1 licence to drive lorries up to 44 tonnes by the end of the year.

“At first it was daunting, but after the first day driving it was a breeze,” said Macintyre, recalling his first time behind the wheel of an HGV. “You are more aware of your surroundings and what other people are doing. You have to be more concentrated on the road and what is around you.”

As Macintyre is experiencing at first hand, becoming an HGV driver is more complex than many people imagine. Last month, the Sun newspaper launched a “keep on trucking” campaign, aimed at recruiting tens of thousands of lorry drivers to help ease the current staffing squeeze. The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, infuriated many across the industry by shooting down calls for an immigration amnesty, instead saying companies should hire UK-based workers.

Sitting in the cab of a 44-tonne double-decker articulated lorry, laden with bathroom furniture, Gabriel Stefan is preparing to drive 175 miles to Wigan, along the M5 and M6 motorways.

Before the journey of about five hours, 38-year-old Stefan has completed his vehicle checks and ensured that he has entered the height of the vehicle on the display inside the cab, in case of unexpected diversions that take him under bridges.

There is a narrow foam mattress on a bunk behind his seat, but Stefan, who has been based in the UK for six years since arriving from Romania, doesn’t expect to use it, and will return to Bristol that evening.

Stefan welcomed the rising pay for HGV drivers, but riding high in his lorry, it was easy to see the responsibility of the job, which could not be learned overnight. “It is more stressful on here than in a small van,” he said.

The current delays for HGV drivers awaiting their tests, following the closure of testing sites during the pandemic, is another obstacle in the industry’s path. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) is not expected to clear the backlog until spring 2022, according to Logistics UK.

Prospective drivers enticed by the prospect of rising wages are able to self-fund their training and qualifications, estimated to cost as much as £4,000, according to Sally Gilson, skills policy manager at the Road Haulage Association.

Yet Gilson and other industry members believe the government needs to change its retraining policy, which only supports funding for those who have reached an advanced education level, level 3, equivalent to A-levels.

“The government tells the sector we must train homegrown talent but then doesn’t enable funding to retrain at level 2. This must change,” said Gilson.

As Stefan’s lorry edges out of the trading estate, with an automated voice informing other road users that the vehicle is turning left, it is clear that solving the driver staffing crisis represents a mammoth task, with no short-term fix.

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