The commercial fleet industry must improve working conditions if it is to solve the driver crisis, according to transport minister Lord Ahmad.
He told MPs the Government was playing its part in helping to recruit and retain HGV drivers, but any solution “must be industry-led”.
“I think conditions need to be improved,” he said. “The roadside facilities available are not up to standard.
“We also need to ensure that the criteria set down for ensuring that drivers have their rest periods, in accordance with the regulations, are applied fairly, adequately and effectively across the industry.”
However, he stopped short of saying pay for HGV drivers needed to be increased, instead insisting that it was for “the market to set what sort of wages are competitive”.
“If you compare how earnings have increased in 2014,” he said, “we have seen about a 4% increase in the sector and I think that’s reflective of the growing demand in the industry more generally.”
Industry estimates suggest a shortfall of some 45,000 drivers, while figures from the Office of National Statistics show that nearly 80,000 qualified HGV drivers with a valid driver CPC are choosing not to work in the industry.
Lord Ahmad, who was giving evidence to the Transport Committee, acknowledged that the Government has “a role to play” in working with the commercial fleet industry to provide “solutions for the shortage”.
He told the committee that the recruitment of 195 examiners should help to cut test waiting times from six weeks to three by the summer.
Details of an apprenticeship scheme, which will deliver 4,900 apprentices to help fill the driver shortfall, should be published in a matter of months, he said.
However, he added: “I think there is a challenge for us, within the transport team, to make the attractiveness of careers in transport a ready option.”
Poor wages, poor facilities and the poor treatment of drivers are the top three factors affecting recruitment and retention, according to research from ReturnLoads.net.
Almost all (96%) of the 400-plus commercial drivers it surveyed felt the best way to attract new recruits or retain existing drivers was by increasing wages (96%) and improving facilities (88%).
“What is quite worrying is the 36% percentage of drivers who say they are not treated well by the companies they drive for,” said a spokesman for ReturnLoads.net. “Even more worrying is the 78% who would not recommend becoming a professional HGV driver.
“The survey results have highlighted issues, which, if not addressed, could result in more HGV drivers leaving the industry and fewer drivers coming in.”
The starting salary for a large goods vehicle driver is about £18,000, while average wages stand at about £30,000.
Adrian Jones, national officer for road transport and logistics at the Unite union, said: “When there are operators out there who deliberately run down terms and conditions in a race to the bottom to get the lowest possible price, when there are drivers who have gone through £3,000-£5,000 worth of training and licence acquisition and are then on little more than minimum wage for driving a class 1 vehicle around the streets of the country, that is the wrong direction to go in. Do we really want the market to correct that?”
Jones, who was also giving evidence to the Transport Committee’s skills and workforce planning inquiry into the lack of professional drivers in the haulage industry, told MPs that pay is “well below where our members believe it should be in order to recognise the professionalism of the job”.
Jones also highlighted how transport companies have recruited drivers from Eastern Europe to address the shortfall in the short term.
“There are no major issues with that as long as those drivers are coming in with the proper facilities, as well as having the appropriate terms and conditions,” he said.
However, he claimed that has not been the case with some agencies: “They have not provided proper accommodation, for example, and expect them to spend their weekly rest in the cab, which is not just unacceptable, but in breach of the European regulations.
“They also undercut the rates for the job in the UK, and that has clearly been something that a lot of our members, and drivers, have seen as a real threat that has not been dealt with appropriately.”
Jolyon Drury, chairman of the public policies committee for the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT), estimates that about 40,000 EU drivers are currently filling the shortfall, with about 12,000 EU-registered trucks.
He said: “A driver I talked to recently was only earning €300 [£234] a month as a teacher in Romania and was pleased to get €300 a week from a UK haulage company.
“We did our own survey and found that driver conditions, as well as pay, were one of the main reasons why there isn’t take-up from the younger age group.
“We also found that the majority of heavy goods vehicle drivers are over 50, and we are therefore very concerned that as the age moves on in the next five years we will not have anybody to replace the natural wastage.”
Ahmad said agency drivers addressed a current shortage in the market. He added: “As we see a greater level of retention there will perhaps be less demand for agency drivers.”
The transport minister has said he will meet employers and fleet representative bodies this month to see what more can be done to help solve the driver crisis.
It follows a meeting between the transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, and David Wells, chief executive of the Freight Transport Association (FTA), ahead of a ‘Skills Summit’ on March 17 which was organised by the association to help employers in the logistics industry tackle the problem of recruiting and retaining staff.
Following the meeting with McLoughlin, Wells said: “The FTA is delighted to see that the secretary of state recognises the importance of our sector and that we were able to discuss and highlight the ways in which industry and Government can work in partnership to solve the driver shortage problem.”
However, Unite was not so complimentary about the Government’s efforts to address the driver crisis.
Jones said: “The Government’s role in trying to address the driver shortage has been slim to nil.
“There is no central Government role in addressing an absolutely key skills shortage in the UK. That is an absolute disgrace, in my opinion.
“We think a lot can be done to change the view and perception of the industry, the working conditions and the pay associated with the profession, as well as the wider economics of providing safe rates from the employer.”