How to get the most from agency drivers

Agency driver

They can be a really useful resource but fleets must manage the process carefully, say experts

The national shortage of truck drivers is hitting transport fleets hard and it looks as though the situation is going to get worse before it gets better. So says Colin Snape, deputy policy director at the Road Haulage Association (RHA).

“We’ve got members who are parking trucks up because they can’t get people to drive them,” he comments. “It’s affecting them seriously.

“Furthermore, we’ve had reports that some driver agencies can’t find drivers either so they’re having to turn work down,” he says.

Estimates of the size of the shortfall vary. “We’ve calculated that it is around 45,000 but it could be as high as 60,000,” Snape says.

Sally Gilson, head of skills campaigns at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), adds: “There are currently more than 52,000 vacancies for truck drivers and many of our members come to us with the same challenge: the inability to fill transport and warehouse vacancies.

“The logistics industry is facing a ticking time bomb.”

A variety of reasons are cited for the driver drought. A key one at present, Snape believes, is the impact of the vote in favour of Brexit two years ago and the subsequent fall in the value of the pound against the euro. “It’s meant that a lot of the eastern European drivers who used to work here have found that they are not earning as much as they used to, and have either gone home or maybe got jobs in France or Germany,” he reports.

So how do fleets plug the labour gap? Long relied on to supplement the permanent driving workforce at periods of peak demand, agency drivers are being called on throughout the year to cover a near-continual shortfall.

“Unfortunately, many transport companies aren’t as careful as they should be when they are hiring permanent drivers either.” Colin Snape

Despite Snape’s remarks about the shortages they are suffering, many agencies say they have plenty of drivers available.

However, using agency drivers can be a lottery, many transport managers contend. Stories abound of them not turning up for shifts, dumping the truck half-way through a delivery run and going home, being in possession of more than one digital tachograph card and having more than their fair share of accidents.

Many of these tales are doubtless exaggerated or downright false – but what is certainly true is that businesses need to exercise as much care when taking on agency drivers as they do when recruiting full-time employees.

“Unfortunately, many transport companies aren’t as careful as they should be when they are hiring permanent drivers either,” Snape says.

Agency drivers should undergo a minimum half-day induction programme so that they understand what the fleet requires of them and the policies and practices it follows he adds.

The operator should set out these requirements in a manual which should be handed to the driver, who must sign for it. That individual may never open it, but cannot subsequently claim it was never received.

“If you regularly use agency drivers who are from mainland Europe then the manual may have to be translated into different languages,” says Snape.

Check drivers’ licences and ensure that they have the appropriate licence entitlement and that they have not accumulated sufficient points to attract a ban. Check also that they have a valid driver Certificate of Professional Competence.

You may also want to double-check the licence to ensure that it is genuine, Snape adds.

Before Snape worked for the RHA he was human resources manager at logistics group Nagel Langdons.

“I had a Polish driver apply for a job, turned him away because he didn’t have a truck licence, only for him to come back a couple of days later to present me with one,” he recalls. It turned out to be a forgery – the driver had nipped back to Poland and bought it on the black market.

“If you are taking on agency drivers then in my view it is all about the vetting,” says Don Porter, transport and logistics manager at Andrew Sykes, which hires out air-conditioning and heating systems.

“A lot of agencies have their own vetting processes but they may not always be effective.”

As the operator, you need to check everything; it is your O-licence after all, not the agency’s.

“You must see the driver’s licence yourself and you need to get feedback from his previous employers,” Porter says. You need to know whether he can be depended on to turn up on time, whether he is accident-prone and whether or not he understands and obeys the Drivers’ Hours rules.


You get what you pay for

One transport manager says: “Ideally what you need to do is go out with the driver in a truck for half-an-hour and assess his abilities yourself. But there’s rarely the time.”

What you may also want to discover is whether drivers are capable of coping with all the in-cab communications technology they are likely to be faced with. “You may need to find out if somebody from an agency is comfortable using a tablet computer for example,” says Porter.

That may also need to be extended to discovering whether the individual concerned is happy to carry out daily checks using an app on a smartphone rather than a pen and a sheet of paper on a clipboard.

“What you really need is a permanent pool of agency drivers whom both you and the agency have vetted, whom you are happy with and who are used to the way your company works,” Porter says.

If you want quality then you have got to be willing to pay for it.

“You may have to find an extra £1 or £1.50 an hour,” adds Porter.

“But if that means you get drivers who do not damage your vehicles and know how to drive them economically then it has to be worth it.”


Don’t run out of hours

“Always make sure the driver downloads his digital tachograph card before he starts his shift,” says Porter. That way you know how many hours he’s done and how many hours he can work.

What if he has hours left, but you are not absolutely certain that he has enough available to do the job you want him to do? Don’t make the mistake of chancing it, warns Porter.

“Road congestion means that traffic moves more slowly these days, so a journey that used to take three hours is likely to take four,” he says. “What you don’t want is for him to run out of hours because he’s stuck in a jam.”

He may of course have managed to acquire another tachograph card illicitly. “You must ask him if he has a second tachograph card,” advises Porter. “He’s bound to say ‘no’ whether he’s got one or not, but you should get him to sign a document to that effect anyway.”

If it subsequently emerges that he was indeed using more than one card, then at least you can demonstrate that you asked the question and that he deliberately misled you.

Before you start taking on drivers from a particular agency, you should sit down with its managers and ensure that they understand the nature of your business and what the drivers will be expected to do. There is a deal of difference between driving a 44-tonner on intercity runs and an 18-tonner on local multidrop work.

The idea that drivers work for agencies because they cannot find anything better is completely mistaken.

“Agencies often pay more per hour than permanent jobs and many agency drivers don’t want permanent positions anyway,” says Porter. “They like to be able to pick and choose who they work for.”

Providing drivers to cover some 17,500 shifts a week through more than 100 offices, well-known agency Driver Hire stresses that it thoroughly checks the backgrounds of all the drivers who want to come on to its books.

They have to attend a face-to-face interview and produce all sorts of supporting documentation, including their National Insurance number and bank details, another form of ID such as a passport or birth certificate and their original driving licence – not a photocopy. In addition, they have to take a competency test and give the telephone numbers of two work-related referees.

They also have to produce proof of their right to work in the UK where relevant. All fleets should remember that employing somebody who does not have the right to work is a serious offence and that denying responsibility because the individual was supplied by an employment agency is unlikely to be accepted as a defence.

“Agencies often pay more per hour than permanent jobs and many agency drivers don’t want permanent positions anyway,” Don Porter

Major transport companies can end up spending millions of pounds a year on agency drivers despite the fact that there are other ways to expand the workforce than relying on them, says Snape.

“The RHA has established a charity called Road to Logistics in conjunction with Microlise,” he says.

It is a training programme designed to encourage new talent into the transport industry from sections of society where individuals need help and support, such as ex-service personnel who have found it hard to adjust to civilian life and have got into difficulties.

Obtaining funding for such initiatives can be a challenge but the Department for Transport says it is prepared to match any sums that RHA members can raise.

“One thing we’ve suggested is that members who are not making use of their apprenticeship levy donate 10% of it, which they are allowed to do,” Snape says. Remember that if the levy is not spent within two years then it can be taken by HMRC as tax.

The levy can of course be used to fund driving apprenticeships directly. A Level 2 12-month Large Goods Vehicle Driver apprenticeship has been developed and Level 2 Express Delivery Operative is also under development.

“It covers everything from driving and customer service skills to route planning,” says Wincanton talent and development manager Nicola Bevan.

Levy funding can be used to help existing employees improve their skills as well as to assist new recruits, she points out. “Around 80% of our current apprentices were already employed by us,” she says.

Nor is there any upper age limit when it comes to apprenticeship funding, Snape points out. “These days you can be an apprentice when you’re in your 50s or 60s,” he says.

Fleets should also make greater efforts to recruit women drivers, he adds, although the lack of facilities for them – access to suitable toilets and showers when they are away from base for example – does not help. “It could mean re-jigging shifts where possible,” he says. “That might mean starting at 10am and finishing at 3pm so they can drop their children off in the morning and collect them from school in the afternoon.”


Where’s the next generation?

Society has of course changed, and in many respects changed for the better, but women still shoulder much of the responsibility for child care even when they are at work. Adjusting shift patterns, which probably means deploying women drivers primarily on local work so that they do not have nights away from home, is a recognition of that fact.

The RHA is encouraging the recruitment of women at all levels of the transport industry as part of its She’s RHA programme. Fewer than 2% of truck drivers are female, it points out.

“If drivers are coming up to retirement then one option could be to suggest that they work part-time – do three days a week maybe,” Snape says.

The trouble, of course, is that too many drivers are retiring from what is an ageing workforce – “the average age of a truck driver is 48,” FTA’s Gilson points out – with too few younger drivers entering at the other end of the pipeline.

Last December, RHA launched a scheme in conjunction with Close Brothers Asset Finance to help smaller RHA members recruit and train the next generation of truck drivers. “Our industry is facing a massive skills shortage and with Brexit looming, it looks set to get worse,” says RHA chief executive Richard Burnett.

A further issue post-Brexit could centre around the continued ability of the courts to pursue European drivers who have been involved in a serious accident in the UK and have fled back to their home country.

As things stand, the European Arrest Warrant allows the UK to request the arrest and detention of alleged criminals who have gone to other EU states without the need for extradition talks. That situation may change post-Brexit and make it more difficult for the UK to bring such individuals to court on this side of the Channel.

“The cost has become ridiculous and is scaring people away from the transport industry,” Don Porter

Concerns have been expressed about the way in which anybody can become a truck driving instructor without formal qualifications and the ability of drivers to pass their test on a vehicle with an automated gearbox even though they may then be asked to drive one with a manual transmission.

Manual boxes are a rarity these days, however, with automated manual transmissions now almost completely dominant after some false starts in the 1980s. Volvo’s I-Shift first appeared 17 years ago while ZF’s AS-Tronic – now succeeded by its TraXon automated box – arrived 15 years ago and was adopted first by Iveco, with MAN and Daf following suit.

Allison is now busy extolling the virtues of fully-automatic gearboxes in trucks; but although they have been universally adopted in urban buses, they have yet to gain acceptance in heavy goods vehicles other than in specialist applications such as bin wagons.

So far as truck driver instruction is concerned, it is worth noting that the National Register of LGV Instructors and the National Vocational Driving Instructors Register are both supported by the DVSA and set high standards for their members.

A key issue that concerns Porter is that drivers have to pass a Class 2 test (which entitles them to drive rigids) before they can take a Class 1 test (which entitles them to drive artics). That, plus the need to obtain a Certificate of Professional Competence at the same time, adds to the cost and is likely to deter individuals who want to become truck drivers and are paying for the training themselves.

“The cost has become ridiculous and is scaring people away from the transport industry,” he says.

One possible change after Brexit could be an amendment to the regulations which would allow trainees to go straight to Class 1. Another could be to return to the rules that were in force before January 1, 1997, which permitted anybody with a car licence to drive goods vehicles grossing at up to 7.5 tonnes.

Both changes could be of benefit if the driver shortage gets worse post-Brexit; and could be implemented without any cost to the taxpayer.


What the customer wants

If a driver agency is going to provide a top-notch service for its fleet clients then it needs to know as much as possible about what the customer actually wants. So says Richard Owen-Hughes, group marketing director at agency Driver Hire.

“Like any agency we obviously need to understand the technical requirements of the job – type of vehicle, start times, nature of the load, destination and so on,” he says. “But we find some of the softer information can be just as important when it comes to delivering a really good service.

“Even if it’s just for a short-term assignment it really helps to understand the customer’s culture and values, for example, so that we can match candidates to the job,” he continues.

“Even details like where to park when they arrive on site make a difference. It all helps things to run smoothly and keep everyone happy.”

A comprehensive induction for the driver is vital, he adds, and it may be possible for it to be carried out beforehand by the agency itself using a programme developed and agreed with the client. That way, the driver can start work promptly.

It is an approach that has been pursued by Driver Hire’s Dumfries office, and with some success.

Before that happens, all the basic checks on the individual concerned have to be done. Driver Hire carries out licence checks with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and ensures that in-scope drivers are complying with the Drivers’ Hours rules.

Fleets should try to anticipate their future requirement for drivers during periods of peak demand, Owen-Hughes advises. “We provide wall charts that help people think ahead about their likely staffing needs,” he says.

That should mean fewer last-minute panic calls as fleets suddenly realise that they have a mountain of goods to deliver; and not enough drivers on hand to handle the work.

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