IT’S becoming increasing obvious that the UK is suffering from a severe shortage of HGV drivers. Quite a lot of the immediate problem is the ‘Brexit Effect’. It appears that something like one in seven UK lorries were being driven by Eastern Europeans. These drivers are going home, as they always planned to do having made some money here, but they can no longer be replaced by other Eastern Europeans due to Brexit. The driving abilities of some of the Eastern Europeans were questionable compared with the home-grown product, so getting them off our roads should improve safety if nothing else, but it does leave us with a driver shortage.
The employers are, of course, calling for Eastern Europeans to be allowed back in to paper over the cracks which are caused, in part, by the employers themselves. They want to bring back the supply of cheap foreign labour instead of making their industry more attractive to British workers. However Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said: ‘What I don’t want to do as has happened before is bring in cheaper European drivers and then find our drivers drop out because they’re being undercut. That doesn’t solve the problem, it just creates a new problem.’
He’s asking British former lorry drivers to come back to the job: ‘My appeal would be if you have an HGV licence, perhaps if you’re retired from the sector or found that you weren’t being paid enough to make it worthwhile, do take another look because right now there are great jobs available.’ He makes sense, but the problem is bigger than he realises – it’s not just about the money, it’s about how lorry drivers are treated.
The shortage of British drivers has been building for many years but was masked by the easy availability of cheap Eastern European drivers. Brexit has exposed the underlying problem: that British workers don’t want to drive lorries. The role has been devalued by governments and companies to the extent that the job is so unpleasant that no one wants to do it. The UK’s HGV driving population seems to be mainly older drivers who can’t do anything else and are counting the days until they can retire, and starry-eyed youngsters who fancy the glamour of being a trucker and will work for peanuts as long as they can drive a Scania with chrome wheeltrims, but who will leave the industry after a few years and get a better job. It doesn’t seem to be desirable as a career, and we can’t run our distribution industry on those who want to get out of it, those who want to play at it, and foreign workers who want to work in this country for only a few years to make (by the standards of their home countries) some good money to take home. Lorry driving needs to be a long-term career choice, and with the role as it is at the moment that’s not going to happen.
Obtaining an HGV licence became increasingly expensive as you had to pass a Group C (rigids) test first before you could do a Group C+E (artics and drawbars) test, although you could take the tests on consecutive days, which achieved nothing but incurred two test fees. (The government, in a desperate attempt to get new drivers on the road, has recently removed the two-test requirement.) Having got the licence you then have to do the Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC), which is another £350-£400, which is not related to one’s ability or authorisation to drive a lorry, that’s the HGV licence, but covers other things related to driving for a living.
Once you actually start to earn your living as a driver you have to grind along the motorways on a speed limiter which turns every journey into a nightmare of boredom and fatigue, you’re preyed on by police and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) looking to report you for the most trivial of infringements, and treated like dirt by employers and the companies you deliver for and to. The worst of these are the supermarkets, which forbid drivers to wait in their cabs but make them remain, sometimes for hours, in rooms which make the average dentist’s waiting room look palatial. Employers install telematics in lorries to monitor every movement drivers make and discipline them if the telematics say they were ‘driving dangerously’ (something which telematics can’t determine anyway). Some firms even put cameras in the cabs so that managers sitting at their desks can see what the driver is doing and even hear what he’s saying – recorded, of course! If drivers have to stay out overnight there’s nowhere for them to park as most councils have closed their lorry parks, so drivers have to park in laybys and on industrial estates with no food, no human company, and no facilities and so have to do their business in the gutter like dogs. And then people wonder why no one wants to be a lorry driver!
Most of these issues will take some time to resolve to encourage more people to become, and remain, lorry drivers. It may take government action, like requiring local councils to provide lorry parks with toilet facilities and relaxing the speed limiter rules (requiring them to be set no lower than 60mph, which is the speed limit for lorries on motorways and dual carriageways, would be a start), and it may require the supermarkets and others to increase pay rates and stop treating drivers like dirt.
There is one thing which could help very quickly and which the government could do quite easily. There are still many people who hold HGV licences but haven’t done the CPC, in my case because I was out of the haulage industry for 20 years, in many other cases because drivers refused to do a course telling them how to do a job they’d been doing for decades and so handed in their keys. A removal of the requirement to hold a CPC might tempt some of them to come back to the haulage industry. If for some reason it’s judged to be too dangerous to allow drivers without a CPC to do general driving work, perhaps they could be allowed to do some restricted, ‘easy’ jobs, like depot-to-depot or depot-to-docks trunk work. This would release other CPC-qualified drivers to do other work. In many other cases drivers have allowed their HGV licences to lapse, so a fast-track system to enable them to return might also be needed.
I don’t think we have a major shortage of lorry drivers in the UK, I think we have a major shortage of lorry drivers willing to do the job. Brexit has exposed (but not caused) the driver shortage; our new legislative freedom post-Brexit should allow us to alleviate it. That, however, will only be a short-term help. We’re seeing how much we depend on lorry drivers; the long-term solution will require government and the industry itself to make the job an attractive career.
Footnote: The writer achieved the ambition he’d held since the age of 11 and became a lorry driver at 21. After driving more than a million miles over the next 16 years he gave it up in 1998, largely due to the dangers of driving with a speed limiter.