What was once a silent storm in the supply chain has turned into a real hurricane. The low shortage of truck drivers – a problem that has long plagued transport and logistics professionals – is now significant, acute and urgent. It is rampant in businesses of all shapes and sizes and is leaving food shelves empty across the country.
While everyone involved has their take on causes and solutions, there has been a noticeable lack of evidence to support any particular claim. The result has been a growing rift between the camps, most tellingly between industry and government.
But now, with proprietary data, The Grocer is able to tell a fuller story, both showing the real causes of the driver shortage and plotting a possible route.
First of all, the shortage of drivers in Great Britain is not a new phenomenon. Even in the heady days before Covid or Brexit, the UK was already short of around 76,000 drivers, according to Logistics UK.
The workforce is increasingly in demand in recent years. While demand has increased, the total number of drivers has remained fairly stable at around 300,000, according to ONS figures. The only significant growth concerns European drivers, whose number rose from 10,000 in 2010 to 45,000 in 2017.
“Even in the heady days before Covid or Brexit, the UK lacked 76,000 truck drivers”
This means that European drivers have become a vital part of the industry, supplementing the numbers and providing elasticity in times of increased demand. But this dependence on foreign labor has long been a source of concern. In July 2016, MEPs urged the transport industry to “reduce reliance on foreign drivers”, saying that “the primary responsibility … lies with the industry”.
The situation came to a head during the pandemic following a mass exodus of drivers from the UK workforce. Proprietary ONS data shows the total number increased from around 304,000 in Q1 2020 to 235,000 in Q2 2021, representing a net loss of 69,000. Logistics UK estimates that we are now missing about 90,000 drivers to get to where we need to be.
So where have they all been? And what to do to bring them back?
For the food and logistics sectors, the loss of European drivers is one of the main shortages. In a recent letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, more than 20 trade bodies and companies urged the government to take action based on what they saw as the top five causes of the driver crisis.
These included post-Brexit immigration changes, which took away the rights of many EU drivers to live and work in the UK, and Covid-19, which led some drivers to return to their countries. origin from which many have chosen not to return.
For these reasons, the industry has pressed the government to obtain a temporary worker visa for heavy truck drivers in order to allow drivers from the EU to return to the UK.
Unfortunately, many of these drivers don’t want to work in the UK, even if they could. Not only has Brexit created endless red tape and customs procedures, but working conditions are arguably superior in France, Germany and Belgium thanks to such laws that make working on Sundays illegal.
This reluctance was voiced by dozens of drivers in the Financial Times last week. “I will never stay there again. I love England, it’s a great country. But for work, the way they treat people? Never again, ”said one of them.
Moreover, according to ONS data, the loss of European drivers is only a minor cause of the shortage. In early 2020, before the pandemic hit, there were 37,000 European drivers in the UK. Today, there are 24,500.
This loss of 12,500 drivers hardly explains the current shortfall. Considering a total of nearly 70,000 drivers who left during the pandemic alone, that represents just 18% of those who left the heavy-duty industry.
He led a logistics think tank led by Driver Require to conclude that ‘EU drivers leaving the UK have not contributed significantly to the current shortage’, in a new report released this week .
The British are certainly the most important factor. More than 55,000 domestic drivers left the industry during the pandemic. Retirement, lack of driving tests during Covid and tax changes have all been cited as the cause.
Retirement has certainly played its part. The trucking industry is an aging workforce, as evidenced by the average age of heavy truck drivers of 55. Less than 1% are under 25, according to the Road Haulage Association. In 2019, the number of drivers over 50 surpassed those under 50 for the first time [ONS].
This means that the retirement rate has unsurprisingly increased over the past decade, from around 7,500 per year in 2010 to 10,000 per year in 2020, according to the analysis of ONS data by Driver Require. This represents about 4% of the workforce that retires each year.
At least in the pre-pandemic period, this has been more than offset by new entrants into the industry. Between 2015 and 2019, there were three times as many test passes each year as there were retirements. In theory, the number of drivers should have increased.
However, that was not the case – suggesting that many of those who passed their test choose not to drive heavy-duty vehicles at all.
In the UK alone, there are now over 230,000 HGV license holders under 45 who decide not to work in the commercial transport sector. For some reason these people spent around £ 3,000 to acquire a HGV license only to then give up driving commercial vehicles for a living.
To put that into perspective, there are over 30 to 34 years who fall into this category than there were a total of European drivers in the UK before the pandemic.
It’s unclear exactly why the numbers are so high, although unsociable working conditions, wage rates and hours are all seen as factors in the exodus of skilled people from the industry.
Many people are also licensed to use heavy trucks for use in other roles such as driving distribution vans for Amazon and Ocado, while others will have held managerial positions. Some drivers will inevitably have stopped working.
Alex Veitch, Managing Director for Public Policy at Logistics UK, says it is “imperative” that government and industry listen to and act on those who have abandoned a career in truck driving.
“Poor facilities such as safe and secure resting places are a key issue for many of these drivers,” he said, although recent increases in pay rates, bonuses and training programs may also bring people back.
This could be a short-term solution: all of these drivers need a renewed CDC license, which only requires a one-week course.
For much of the industry, however, bringing drivers back from the EU on temporary work visas remains the ideal short-term solution – even if that is not the root cause of the crisis. In its recent letter to Boris Johnson, the RHA said “we need to have access to EU and EEA workforce”.
So far, the government has resisted appeals. Last month, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng urged business leaders to hire UK-based workers, arguing that foreign labor offered only a “short-term, temporary solution”.
Driver Require CEO Kieran Smith says it “makes perfect sense” for the government to resist this path. “A visa program won’t make a huge difference,” he says, and “certainly won’t be a panacea”.
This is not just because of the aforementioned reluctance of EU drivers to return to the UK. There is also a limited pool of qualified European drivers. Much like the UK, many European countries themselves suffer from a shortage of drivers, resulting in similar pay increases.
Poland, for example, currently lacks around 124,000 drivers, or 37% of its required workforce, according to a recent report by TI Insight. This is an even greater shortfall than in the United Kingdom.
Even countries with better working conditions than the UK, such as Germany and France, face sizable shortages.
So where are we now? The UK has a huge pilot hole that, based on the evidence, neither the British nor the Europeans are rushing to fill.
The government’s streamlining of the heavy truck driver testing process is Whitehall’s first real sign of action, but carriers warn it will not be a silver bullet to the problems encountered.
The industry will continue to push for a visa regime to allow EU drivers to work in the UK, and that’s understandable – every little bit counts at this point. But the chances of that happening are questionable. Not only would this likely require significant wage inflation to compete with jobs on the continent, it would also require a government turnaround on immigration.
This is a major sticking point. As outgoing FDF CEO Ian Wright notes: “The industry needs to improve in what we ask. There is no point lecturing the government on immigration because it just does not want to have the conversation.
Re-engage the workforce
The last option is to re-engage the hundreds of thousands of UK drivers with an unused HGV license and choosing not to drive commercial vehicles.
Better wages and conditions will be a major factor in achieving this – and the crisis is already forcing change on this front. Driver wages have risen by around 20% since shortages hit the country, as companies compete for drivers. Many additional measures have also been taken. Tesco, for example, has offered a registration fee of £ 1,000 for drivers, and Poundland is paying for drivers to upgrade to HGV1 licenses.
Recruitment agencies have already signaled a gradual return to the industry as the effect of these measures begins to be felt. But it is not a panacea either – and it will most certainly lead to some food inflation.
One thing is clear: Fundamental and structural changes are needed to reform an industry that many people just don’t want to work in. How this happens will be decisive. Because any successful measure will not only alleviate the crisis, but shape the industry for years to come.