Three-quarters of operators are struggling to recruit heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers, despite Government efforts to address the shortfall.
The findings, from a Commercial Fleet poll, show that driver recruitment and retention remains a major issue for the industry.
In his spring budget, chancellor George Osborne announced that the Government would review the speed with which HGV driving tests and driver medical assessments currently take place, and would consider options to accelerate both in order to help address the shortage of qualified HGV drivers.
However, the timescale for effecting meaningful change is likely to be lengthy.
A Freight Transport Association (FTA) survey conducted in July reported 46% of transport operators in recent months were either unable to fill HGV driver vacancies or had experienced long delays in doing so.
A majority of transport managers also anticipated a shortage of drivers in the near future, with most blaming retirement as the greatest contributing factor. This is consistent with the number expecting to retire in the next five years, which is highlighted in figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that show almost two-thirds of drivers (62%) are 45 years or older.
However, John Parkinson, director of motoring, freight and London at the Department for Transport (DfT), insisted that the Government is taking steps to address driver recruitment and retention.
“The shortage of HGV drivers is a pressing issue for the sector, and one where we’re keen to support an industry-led approach to tackling it,” Parkinson told delegates at a recent Westminster energy, environment and transport forum.
He said the DfT was working with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) to minimise delays in obtaining a driving test appointment and ensuring clarity for drivers about the procedures for HGV driver medical tests.
He continued: “We are also working closely with colleagues in Jobcentre Plus to support the flow of new drivers into the sector, and with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills on establishing a robust apprenticeship that meets the requirement for the Trialblazer scheme.”
Last month, a skills and workforce planning inquiry into the lack of professional drivers in the haulage industry was launched by the Transport Committee.
According to the committee, the objective of the inquiry will be to investigate what action the Government has taken to address industry concerns about a lack of skilled drivers in the road haulage sector, and assess how effective the Government’s response has been.
David Wells, FTA chief executive, said: “This has been an important issue for our members who have been concerned about this for some time.
“In our recent conversations with MPs we have emphasised the real problems the logistics sector is having in attracting new recruits and suggested that Government and the industry need to work together to find solutions which enable us to keep delivering the goods for the UK economy.”
One of the major challenges, highlighted by Commercial Fleet in May, is creating opportunities for younger drivers, given the prohibitively expensive insurance costs they incur.
In 2009, the Government lowered the minimum age for driving a truck from 21 to 18, but insurance has proved to be a barrier to widespread recruitment.
As the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freight Transport previously reported: “Prices are so high that companies are presented with a disincentive to invest in young people to become drivers and so are missing out on the formative years of a young person’s career path.”
Distribution services company Wincanton reduced its driver age policy to accept drivers under 25, but younger drivers are very closely monitored to lower risk as much as possible.
The policy has proved successful, with a 6% increase in the number of drivers aged between 21 and 25, and no increase in incident rates.
But there is also an onus on the industry to broaden its appeal to potential new drivers, according to Parkinson, whose remit at the DfT includes road freight policy, the DVLA, DVSA and the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA), as well as leading the department’s strategic relationship with Transport for London (TfL).
Tapping into that potential, however, will require “serious action to improve the image of the industry and the often poor quality of facilities available to drivers”, he said.
“It is not unusual at night to see lines of lorries parked in laybys without even the most basic facilities,” continued Parkinson. “We know this is unavoidable at times, but it does create a negative image in the minds of potential new drivers.
“HGV drivers are highly skilled operators and they should be valued as such.”
Research by the FTA found that employers within the industry thought ‘driver roadside facilities’ to be the greatest barrier to recruitment.
It’s the centrepiece of a campaign called ‘Truckers’ Toilets UK’ to make access to toilets a statutory requirement, as it is for construction workers.
Philip Roe, vice-president for innovation, strategy and business development at DHL, said: “We’re not actually short of qualified drivers in the UK, what we’re really short of is qualified drivers that want to drive – and there are twice as many qualified drivers as there are people who actually drive.”
Some industry estimates suggest the current shortfall of drivers may be as many as 60,000. Equally, around 48,000 HGV driving tests are taken annually, suggesting that despite the cost of the training – some £3,000 – there are significant numbers of potential new drivers looking to enter the sector.
However, despite the number of tests taken, the current pass rate stands at only 53%. Parkinson said: “More needs to be done to ensure that the quality of training prepares candidates more effectively for the test.”
The quality rather than quantity of candidates has also been questioned. Adrian Escritt, responsible for driver standards and fleet compliance at O’Donovans, suggested some drivers were choosing to train abroad, where standards might not be as high as those in the UK.
“We need to keep an eye on the driving standards of the drivers that are gaining licences within other organisations outside of the UK and then coming in to drive,” he said.
Parkinson said: “Having consistent standards is important across the piece, and actually fundamentally that’s what the EU is all about, trying to ensure we have a level playing field in terms of quality and safety that is transferrable across the EU.”
However, he added: “Where we identify that there may be a systemic problem with a particular country’s training, then it is legitimate to raise that with the European Commission, because, at the end of the day, if that’s the case we are not delivering what was intended by the EU rules.”
Parkinson vowed to continue to work with Highways England and the road haulage sector to help improve the provision of facilities for drivers and the image of what he described as a “vital sector”.