Updated July 8th 2021
As the haulage and logistics sector gradually adjusts to the post-Brexit landscape and at the same time reacts, as ever, to consumer and economic trends and demands as the UK and other countries incrementally ease lockdowns and cautiously step towards normality resuming, another challenge has been brewing and is now coming to a head according to the media – the reported HGV and LGV truck driver shortage.
One week on from the UK’s May 17th 2021 latest milestone on the road to Covid eventually becoming a memory, UK Haulier reports1 that the “shortage of HGV drivers places business recovery at risk” in relation to a report from Logistics UK (formerly the FTA), while Global Cold Chain News asserts: “Driver shortage to reach crisis point this summer”. Headlines like this won’t come as encouraging reading to many of the customers Tiger manufactures trailers and rigid bodywork for, even if they themselves haven’t experienced any such issues first hand. We explore the historical context, the factors involved and potential solutions.
Based on online research, it doesn’t actually appear to be, with articles as far back as a decade ago pointing to an HGV driver shortage having started to bubble substantially before the EU Referendum result, Covid and any other contemporary factors materialised.
In September 2011, the Independent newspaper led a piece2 in its business section with the headline “Lorry driving is not a dead-end job, but no one wants to be a trucker”, which was heavily based on an interview with RH Freight, who described their worries over attracting younger people into professional HGV driving careers after what they called typical drivers – men aged 40 to 60 – began to retire. The firm’s transport director cited a national shortage of 15,000 drivers and expressed a desire to see more women, who represented just 1% at the time, take to driving trucks – which is certainly something Tiger Trailers would embrace, too.
The typical salary band was stated as £26,000 to £34,000 and RH Freight’s Ian Baxter also listed characteristics such as greater freedom compared to an office job, the comfort of modern tractor units, enhanced health and safety practices, and the arrival of childcare-friendly shift patterns and working hours for mothers as attractive features of professional driving roles. He put forward the mistakenly poor image of truck driving, the lack of positive promotion by education establishments, misconceptions over long hours and arduous work, the lack of welfare provisions particularly for female drivers, and the law having increased the 7.5t licence age from 16 to 18 and LGV licences to 21+ as factors fuelling the driver shortage.
A number of industry voices responded in the article by arguing that hauliers should contribute more in monetary terms towards driver training and licences, look at young driver apprenticeships and women specialist providers, and emphasise to prospective drivers that embarking on their careers in warehousing or administrative roles before progressing to behind the wheel isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Global Cold Chain News’ article5 that points to a summer 2021 crisis echoes the fact that the problem has existed for a considerable time previously, by saying: “Driver shortages that have been the norm for decades are now intensifying with Brexit ending recruitment from the EU, a backlog of driving tests caused by Covid-19 and self-employment tax reforms that have led to EU drivers leaving the UK.”
The FT piece14 headlined “Exodus of EU truckers leaves UK hauliers facing acute driver shortages” from May 9th 2021 also adds weight to the driver shortage having existed for many years previously by citing Logistics UK’s Alex Veitch as saying: “Britain has had a chronic driver shortage for many years, but the problem is now acute. In 10 years of campaigning on this issue we have never seen members as concerned as they are now.”
This is the thought-provoking question posed by Backline Logistics, a recruitment and training provider, who crunched various statistics to see whether they stacked up in their opinion. Their blog3 cites 285,000 drivers with valid category C or C+E licence entitlements in 2014, according to a BBC report, having grown by roughly 10% to 311,973 by the middle of 2018, balanced against voices stating that 50 drivers exiting the profession every day meant that 45,000 new truckers would need to be trained simply to plug the leak rather than bolster numbers. Backline then looked at CPC figures, with 73,081 issued DQCs to March 2018 representing a static figure compared to the previous five years, pointing to around 370,000 professional drivers being ‘out there’ at the time – although they acknowledge that bus, coach and retiring driver figures would substantially reduce this number, and maybe the problem is down to availability rather than a shortage per se.
Female drivers were interestingly once again mooted as a potential answer to the HGV driver shortage in the UK, with Backline stating that 6% of the industry’s drivers are women. Tiger Trailers would wholeheartedly welcome more female truck drivers and is always encouraged when some of the manufacturer’s customers such as Willmotts Transport, Boughey and Edge Transport feature their women drivers on their websites and social media.
A shortage of 59,000 HGV drivers faced the sector in late 2019 according to7 Logistics UK, low unemployment ironically listed alongside the other typical factors attributed to the problem that they described even then as ‘urgent’. The FTA called for the Apprenticeship Levy to be renamed Skills Levy in the hope it would lead to more flexibility, and for driver facilities at motorway services, truck stops, secure parking facilities and the like to be improved concertedly. Tiger Trailers fully echoes the words of the FTA’s Sally Gilson who said back at the time that “the logistics sector is the lifeblood of the nation’s economy, supplying businesses with the goods they need to operate.
It's ironic that the driver shortage clearly is a tangible challenge at a time when Croner-i rightly asserts that “the logistics industry, at least, is in rude health. Thanks to the internet and online shopping, logistics is set to grow for the foreseeable future.”
Returning to the UK Haulier article, it’s unsurprising that Logistics UK is reportedly urging the government to take swift action in light of just shy of 10% of hauliers feeling that driver recruitment is an extreme barrier to their post-Covid recovery against a potential backdrop of 5.5% unemployment, with just under a third of operators anticipating that they will be unable to fill driver vacancies, while 14.5% envisage a delay to their usual HR timescales and processes.
Covid resulting in more than 30,000 HGV driving tests having been postponed in 2020 is certainly lamentable but sadly just one of countless sectors domestically and around the world affected by the Coronavirus pandemic, and it’s fair to say that organisations such as the DVSA will be doing their utmost to address these challenges.
The aforementioned Global Cold Chain News report contains many sobering quotes from industry leaders. Turners of Soham concede that some goods already aren’t being delivered, which they predict will worsen in three months (around late August). FreshLinc is finding it a challenge to meet driver numbers, despite paying them up to 30% more in some regions. The Grocer is cited as having reported6 that certain Spar urban supermarket stores have seen their deliveries capped by wholesalers including AF Blakemore. As the RHA’s MD alludes, the public has been largely unaware so far but “it could soon turn into a hurricane with shortages evident, escalating stress and tension among suppliers and hauliers.”
Apprenticeships are being promoted as a solid way of reversing this trend affecting the industry, the RHA having just announced a funding increase to £7,000 for C+E apprenticeships, starting on July 1st, following the Trailblazer Group for Transport and Logistics having rejected the previously tabled £6,000 offer. The RHA admits that apprenticeship funding improvements are just one of many measures required to remedy the situation, though, and the body concedes that manufacturers, retailers and hauliers will likely need to increase their prices to reflect driver pay increases that have for a long time been left unaddressed. Somewhat ironically given the Brexit outcome, the RHA has reportedly urged Whitehall to proactively recruit foreign HGV drivers by adding the profession to the Shortage Occupation List maintained by the Home Office4.
In March 2020, just as the pandemic was taking hold in the UK and other countries, Transport Operator magazine published findings from Driver Require’s whitepaper entitled “Investigating the UK’s LGV Driver Shortage”, which blamed the 2008 recession as the turning point at which LGV driver numbers began receding, from 320,000 in 2008 to 260,000 by 2013 “before rising again to today’s figure of 320,000, with an influx of drivers from Romania making a large contribution, as the firm’s CEO explains.
Recognition, praise and generally greater appreciation of the important role HGV and LGV drivers play is one way in which operators who are unable to increase pay for whatever reason can nevertheless stem the exodus of drivers, according to9 Croner-i. We agree that thanking, rewarding, promoting and involving drivers in decisions can go a long way to making the role more attractive and perceived as a career rather than ‘just a job’.
The organisation also suggests10 that safer secure parking facilities and the move away from ‘soft-sided trailers’, which we assume means curtainsiders, could help to reduce theft and vulnerability concerns, subsequently deterring fewer women from joining the ranks.
In July 2021, the government announced18 that HGV drivers will now be able to drive an extra hour each day, ten in total, or change their weekly rest patterns on Monday, but we agree with various sentiments from across the industry, from the Road Haulage Association labelling Grant Shapps' announcement a "sticking plaster", and the Unite union saying it will encourage its drivers to refuse on safety grounds, to Logistics UK saying it "vehemently opposes the extension" to driver hours. It does seem ironic that long working days, one of the factors deterring prospective drivers, have even been mooted as a possible way of addressing the trucker shortage. Enabling exhausted drivers to make longer journeys doesn't sound appealing when the UK's roads are peppered with extensive roadworks and other delays, typically when accidents occur on smart motorways. With July's sector headlines dominated by news of Sainsbury's, Tesco, Haribo and other large brands warning of supply issues, maybe Premier Foods is right in suggesting that the government enlists the help of the army19 to ensure supermarket shelves and other products don't become scarce.
Motor Transport magazine11 interviewed KBC Logistics in March 2021 and explained in its article entitled “IR35 tax reform will worsen driver shortage and favour smaller operators” that from the new tax year medium and large road transport firms with a net turnover exceeding £10.2 million or who employ fifty or more employees will no longer be able to utilise truck drivers that operate through their own limited companies.
Mirroring a similar taxation change that has affected contractors across the IT, architecture, consultancy and many other desk-based sectors in recent years, HGV and LGV drivers working for such operators will now need to be employed as salaried PAYE workers on the payroll, either directly by the haulage company they drive for, through an umbrella company or via a driver agency. It could be argued that this is a revenue-generating move by the government, pure and simple, which some may counter-assert is required to pay for the effects of Covid.
Fascinatingly, the RHA says that “pallet firms in particular are having to extend-next day deliveries by up to five days” because of these CV driver IR35 changes.
Their introduction delayed twelve months to acknowledge Covid’s impact, the IR35 tax law changes affecting professional commercial vehicle drivers from April 2021 do indeed at face value seem to give an unfair advantage to logistics firms with turnovers or employee numbers below the threshold, so we hope that Transport Minister Rachel MacLean’s promise that the government will “maintain a dialogue with the road haulage sector on this issue to assess whether the introduction has an impact on the HGV driver shortage” does result in legislative tweaks that level the playing field and help ease the driver shortage.
In the Financial Times article mentioned earlier on in our blog, Kieran Smith from Driver Require was quoted as explaining that “we estimate that another 5,000-10,000 are leaving now because of IR35. A lot didn’t pay correct limited company taxes, but even with inflated wages, it’s still not enough to get the same net income”. It seems odd, then, that the FT piece states that the IR35 reforms were “widely welcomed by the industry”, as it sounds like they have come back to bite, so to speak.
Redwood Logistics, a haulage firm in America, describes12 how, Stateside too, “throughout the past decade, the trucking industry has struggled with a shortage of truck drivers”. Just like in the UK, truck drivers are predominantly men in their 50s, many of whom are looking to retire sooner rather than later, not helped by federal law requiring a semi truck rig driver to be 21 years of age or older. The operator went on to discuss a truck driver’s lifestyle as problematic in attractive increasing numbers of women drivers, with extended periods of time away from home, showering in public rest areas, a primarily sedentary routine plus sleep deprivation issues understandably putting many prospective female truck drivers off. Redwood suggests the proactive targeting of ethnic minorities, women and also veterans, along with improved pay rates and reduced journeys as key ways of bucking the trend – although we can’t see the latter ever being considered due to hauliers’ increasingly intercontinental or, in America’s case, inter-state operations.
The Washington Post nicely confirms the United States’ own driver shortage with the evocative headline13 “America has a massive truck driver shortage. Here’s why few want an $80,000 job.” The article documents how, for example, Brenny Transportation is still struggling to recruit truck drivers despite having implemented a 15% pay rise that sees many of its drivers being rewarded with $80,000 salaries.
Retailers such as Amazon, Walmart and co – ultimately in response to their customers, we feel should be stressed - are cited as significantly contributing to the massive increase in logistics demand, and interviews with a number of drivers point to lack of respect from other drivers, long hours and time away from family, plus unhealthy lifestyle concerns as reasons why heftier salaries aren’t enough to improve the perception of truck driving in American workers’ eyes.
Some of the drivers who spoke to the Washington Post said that they would actively discourage their children from driving trucks for a living, mainly because it’s led to divorce and weight gain, while others claim that large salaries are actually only enjoyed by a more fortunate few. The response from Boris Strbac of Star Trucking in Milwaukee interested us and echoed our own views when he said, presumably in relation to logistics operators rather than drivers, that: “People are banking on driverless trucks, but those are not coming anytime soon”.
As a manufacturer active on LinkedIn and other social media channels, Tiger Trailers sees numerous posts on a weekly basis relating to the UK’s driver shortage - and taking time to carefully read through some of the comments can provide a real insight.
One transport manager in our network feels that “there are thousands of people looking to be professional drivers who haven’t got the funding to support them”, the answers lying in better salaries and a focus on driver retention. One of the replies to his thread, though, revealed that some people perceive the problem to be drivers themselves, a proportion of whom lack professionalism, an appreciation for compliance and a willingness to drive their provided vehicles economically.
Another haulage voice highlighted, rightly in our view, that drivers would do well to reflect on nurses earning an average of £28,000 while working very long hours in many cases. A reply from someone in the energy sector pointed to today’s 24/7 demand for products and services having fuelled the problem and interestingly claimed that some drivers demand that they only drive a box van, for instance, resulting in unnecessarily inflated driver shortages for flatbed, curtainsider and other trailer types. Elsewhere, a driver who formerly worked in an office role commented that a shocking attitude from warehouse personnel towards truck drivers is to blame in his opinion.
Bringing out the argument that overbearing driver tuition is partly to blame, one haulage voice on LinkedIn emotionally commented that “Britain is about to boom and the classroom has torn the heart out of the great British driver”, but this was quickly countered by an operator who replied: “I would rather there be a shortage of drivers, than an abundance of ill-educated drivers, not prepared to sit and listen for 35 hours. You may hate CPC, but it does refresh the brain and also provoke discussions around legislation.” This was echoed by a firm that said “three new ones I helped on the ladder smashed my wagons up, wrote them off”, showing what a delicate balance legislators, haulage companies and drivers all face.
Remembering how truck drivers and the logistics sector were hailed as key workers during the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s saddening to read one driver on LinkedIn comment: “If we weren’t demonized by everyone and had better conditions out on the road and better pay you wouldn’t see a shortfall.” This sentiment is shared by Fagan & Whalley’s Transport Operations Director, Daniel Fagan, who admirably said15: “Grafting through a pandemic and making sure everybody’s needs are met yet they are STILL undervalued. They will always get the credit they deserve off me. Change is needed.”
Replying to Dirk Kupar from TruckRight’s social media question over how to keep drivers, one transportation H&S manager adroitly commented in words we feel carry a lot of logic16: “I think focusing on a driver’s benefit package would go a long way towards retention. Medical, dental, vision, disability, life 401k with match etc. Pay will get drivers to notice a company but job satisfaction will make drivers stay.”
It’s clear that this challenge, which has seemingly always affected the road transport industry but has become increasingly palpable over the last decade or so, has been brought almost to a head by a perfect storm of Brexit, Covid, IR35 rules plus societal awareness over healthy lifestyles and family time.
Internet shopping and people’s general demands for around-the-clock goods and services are continuously placing pressure on the sector, which is widely regarded as having played a pivotal role in helping the UK through a very challenging time amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, alongside the NHS and other key workers.
Emotions are understandably running high, amongst industry voices and organisations, the scores of logistics operators across the UK plus the drivers that work for them. The easing of the driving tuition and test backlog will undoubtedly help to some extent, as will campaigns to actively promote truck driving to women and younger people – so although the challenge of long journeys and working hours will always be a factor weighed up by prospective entrants, it’s hoped that the HGV and LGV driver shortage in the UK and indeed Europe and the States will begin easing, even if slowly to begin with.