The national shortage of truck drivers is making life as difficult for agencies supplying temporary drivers as it is for their customers. Indeed, anybody with a licence to drive anything heavier than a 7.5-tonner – or heavier than a 3.5-tonner, for that matter – has become a rare and much-sought-after commodity.
So says Michael Watson, logistics director at Runcorn-based Drivers Direct Recruitment. Set up in 2002, the company supplies more than 1,000 drivers a week to public and private sector customers around the country. They range from Class 1 and Class 2 LGV drivers to forklift truck operators. Van and minibus drivers are included in the mix, as are general warehouse employees. It has 26 branches around the UK, in locations as far apart as Bristol and Preston.
Demand for truck drivers is unceasing, thanks to the combination of a chronic national shortage – “the shortfall is reckoned to be anywhere between 30,000 and 55,000,” says Watson – and a buoyant economy.
He admits that Drivers Direct can at times find it hard to supply them in the numbers its customers need.
“The first quarter of the year isn’t too bad usually but, from Easter onwards, things can become quite challenging both for us and for other businesses like us,” Watson says.
“The run-up to Christmas can be particularly difficult, and making drivers available when they are needed requires some juggling.”
This means that transport companies may sometimes have to tell their customers that delivery windows have got to be widened and that they may have to accept deliveries later than scheduled. While they may find that unpalatable, the alternative may be no deliveries at all.
“The shortage is a gaping wound in the labour market and not something that can be cured by applying a sticking plaster,” Watson says.
It has been created by a mixture of factors, he believes, not least the loss of the automatic right car drivers used to have to drive goods vehicles grossing at up to 7.5 tonnes. Anybody who passed their car driving test after January 1, 1997, has to take a separate test if they want to drive anything heavier than a 3.5-tonner. Drivers who obtained a car licence prior to that date retain their entitlement to drive a 7.5-tonner, under so-called ‘grandfather rights’ rules. But that pool of drivers is steadily shrinking, as they retire.
“Driving a 7.5-tonner used to give car drivers a feel for what it’s like to drive a truck and helped them decide if they wanted to drive anything heavier but that route isn’t really open to them now,” says Watson.
Furthermore, the boom in home delivery and soaring demand for 3.5-tonne drivers has acted as a disincentive to individuals who might want to get to grips with heavier kit, Watson suggests. Why bother learning to drive a truck when there is so much 3.5-tonne work about?
“Bear in mind, too, that there is a big shortage of LGV testers and test dates,” he says.
The lack of ability to go straight to a Class 1 licence has also had an impact, says Watson. And so has the ongoing requirement for driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) training for most employees driving anything heavier than a 3.5-tonner. The latter development has benefited Drivers Direct, as its Joint Approvals Unit for Periodic Training-registered training arm runs CPC courses.
The courses address everything from legislation to basic health and safety and safe and competent driving.
The LGV shortfall is driving up wages, says Watson. “To be fair, it’s an improvement that’s long been overdue,” he says.
“These days, Class 2 rigid drivers can expect to earn £8 to £10 an hour rising to £9 to £13 if they hold a Class 1 licence, and here I’m talking basic hourly rates excluding any overtime or premium payments.”
There are exceptions. For example, a Class 2 driver working for a builders’ merchant, driving a 6x2, 26-tonne rigid truck who is competent to operate a truck-mounted crane will be paid more than the standard Class 2 rate. However, that is mainly to compensate for the fact that he or she will usually be on a fixed working day – typically 7.30am to 4.30pm – with limited opportunities for overtime, explains Watson.
Holding an ADR certificate, which means you are competent to transport hazardous goods, does not automatically mean you will earn more, says Watson, but it will open doors for you.
This raises a question around how transport firms respond when they are told they will have to pay more.
“We get a pained look, but it’s a look that’s combined with an element of understanding,” says Watson. “They do, of course, appreciate only too well that there is a shortage.”
Improved wages may of course attract drivers to the industry and encourage those who might otherwise decide to leave to remain. More money has to be balanced against a number of other factors, however, including the pressures imposed by traffic congestion, the drivers’ hours rules and a paucity of places where drivers can stop for their statutory breaks or park overnight, should they need to.
Given the current shortage, Drivers Direct might be tempted to accept anybody with an LGV licence on to its books. But that’s not the approach the company pursues, Watson stresses.
“We put everybody who wants to work for us through a two-hour face-to-face interview,” he says. Driving licences are carefully checked, too.
“We do not charge drivers for our services,” says Watson. “We do, however, charge the firms we supply them to.”
He declines to go into any detail of what these charges might be.
The drivers are not full-time employees of Drivers Direct and retain the freedom to work through other agencies if they so wish.
The days when agency drivers were viewed as second-class citizens are largely gone, Watson believes. “These days, there are people who view driving for agencies as a career,” he says. “They like the variety and do agency work out of choice, not out of necessity.
“Furthermore, the variety of experiences they can bring to a job can be of enormous help to a fleet,” he contends.
The result can be a new approach to handling tasks that full-time employees may never have thought of and an improvement in efficiency as a consequence.
Supplying drivers and arranging CPC training is not the sum total of Drivers Direct’s activities. Last year, it set up its own small transport fleet.
This could be viewed as risky, if your core business revolves around providing the road transport industry with temporary and permanent drivers. Clients might conclude that you are trying to compete with them, dislike the prospect and react by sourcing their workers elsewhere.
Luckily, that is not what the company is finding, says Watson.
“We’re not getting an adverse reaction at all and I don’t expect we will,” he says. “The marketplace is big enough for everybody after all.”
Company: Drivers Direct Recruitment
Logistics director: Michael Watson
Time in role: Seven months
Location: Runcorn, Cheshire
Key product: Temporary drivers