Britain’s economy risks grinding to a halt for want of truck drivers and action must be taken now. That was the stark warning delivered by transport industry executives at a recent conference organised by the Freight Transport Association (FTA) called Solving the Driver Crisis.
The scale of the escalating problem was outlined by Volvo Trucks UK and Ireland Managing Director, Arne Knaben. “Britain is short of 40,000 drivers, 45,000 are retiring over the next two years but only 17,000 are joining the sector annually,” he observes.
He went on to outline some of the reasons why the industry has apparently become so unappealing to prospective employees: wage levels, poor working conditions and the regulatory burden drivers face. Increasing wages presents a challenge given that so many haulage contracts are competed for on price.
Knaben stresses that he does not want to see the rules relaxed to such an extent that safety is put at risk. “However we need to find a healthy balance,” he comments.
If anything he may be understating the problem, as according to the FTA the sector may be as many as 60,000 truck drivers short.
“There is no unemployed pool of drivers,” said FTA Chief Executive Theo de Pencier. “As a consequence if you are warm and breathing and you’ve got an LGV licence then you are likely to find a job.”
Drivers are generally middle-aged or older due to the rate at which the driver workforce is ageing. “Around 60% of LGV drivers are aged between 45 and 65 compared with 35% of the overall working population,” de Pencier points out.
So what steps can be taken to address the problem?
Possible measures include encouraging school pupils that a career in road transport awaits them, reducing the minimum age for LGV licence acquisition, cutting the cost of insuring and training young drivers and improving roadside facilities.
Why should drivers be asked to spend the night in a lay-by in what may admittedly be a comfortable truck sleeper cab but without washing or toilet facilities? “You wouldn’t ask office workers to sleep next to their work stations,” Knaben remarks.
Better facilities could attract more women into the industry – as things stand only 1% of LGV drivers are female.
Firms running 3.5-tonners driven by employees without an entitlement to drive a 7.5-tonner could consider training them and putting them through their test; possibly as a first step towards driving even heavier vehicles.
Aside from recruiting those leaving the armed forces, another approach to increasing the driver pool could be for larger operators to re-train employees working in distribution warehouses.
“We’ll be re-training more than 100 this year,” says Ian Stansfield, Vice President of Asda Logistics Services and Supply Chain. Wincanton Group is adopting a similar policy under its Warehouse to Wheels initiative says Technical Services Director, Dave Rowlands.
FTA Skills Policy and Development Manager, Sally Gilson, points to some of the government-backed packages that are available to offset the cost of training youngsters to become LGV drivers.
“100% of the cost can be covered if you are under 19, falling to 50% if you are aged 19 to 24,” she observes. “If you are over 24, then support of up to 50% of the cost may still be available depending on the training provider.”
Rowlands is critical of hostile attitudes towards LGV drivers afforded by people at some of the premises they deliver to, including refusing access to toilets.
“The sign should read ‘drivers welcome’ not ‘no drivers past this point’,” he remarks.
His view is shared by Adrian Jones, National Officer at Unite with responsibility for the union’s road transport members. “Drivers are treated with contempt at some places,” he remarks.
That’s not the case everywhere, however, and he cites with approval the creation of a facility for visiting drivers at a Midlands factory that allows them to have a break in civilised surroundings. “It’s basic but clean and welcoming,” he comments.
Rowlands feels a more tolerant attitude to the construction of truck parks and driver rest areas should be taken by everyone, from planners to the general public, so drivers have somewhere decent to stop, wash and get a meal.
Revisiting shift patterns to make driving more appealing could pay dividends too. “We’re offering a lot more four-days-on, four-days-off shifts,” says Geraint Davies, Fleet Manager at John Raymond Transport.
Employees often want to spend more time with their families – and the transport industry should help them to do so wherever possible.