An acute shortage of truck drivers is threatening the viability of fleet operations throughout the UK and could even risk undermining the country’s economic recovery.
Commercial and public sector fleets are struggling to recruit qualified new drivers at a time when the current pool of drivers is ageing and retiring. The statistics are stark; according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Labour Force Survey, 62% of truck drivers are 45 years or older, while for the economy as a whole this age group accounts for only 35% of employees.
The steady decline in driver numbers started at least a decade ago. The ONS found 285,000 people employed as truck drivers in 2014, 12.5% down on the 326,000 drivers in 2004. Over the same period, there has been a 7.5% increase in the number of jobs in the economy.
Further evidence of a shortage comes from the number of drivers claiming jobseekers’ allowance, a tally currently at a 10-year low. Indeed, figures are 57% down this year compared to last. Put simply, there’s no slack in the system to boost driver numbers.
So where does this leave fleet operators? The Freight Transport Association calculates a current shortfall in truck drivers of over 52,000.
“The shortage of professional, qualified drivers has rapidly become the single biggest business issue for the FTA,” said James Hookham, managing director, membership and policy at the FTA.
Arne Knaben, managing director of Volvo Trucks UK & Ireland, goes even further.
“The scale of the problem is potentially devastating for many road transport businesses. No drivers means no deliveries, it’s as simple as that,” he said.
Moreover, unless radical solutions are found, the situation is set to deteriorate rapidly. Skills for Logistics, a not-for-profit organisation that works in the transport sector, warns: “A fifth of the workforce will reach retirement age in the next 10 years. That’s approximately 75,000 drivers. But the number gaining a licence is decreasing.
“The data shows a 45% fall in the number obtaining a licence in a five-year period. This does not come close to replacing those that are anticipated to leave the profession.”
With 69% of UK freight movements on the road, the economy is in danger of grinding to a halt. Literally. It’s a timebomb ticking ever more loudly, and which the Government is attempting to defuse.
In his spring Budget, Chancellor George Osborne announced: “The Government will review the speed with which Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGV) driving tests and driver medical assessments currently take place and will consider options to accelerate both in order to help address the shortage of qualified HGV drivers.”
If the Chancellor’s sentiments were welcomed by the freight industry, the timescale for effecting meaningful change is likely to be lengthy.
Justin Zatouroff, KPMG’s global head of post and express, said: “Looking at the right level of access to, and funding support for, training is good for all but will take time to change a long-term problem, given that the average age of HGV drivers is so high.”
So what can fleet operators do to tide themselves over the shortage of drivers, compete for scarce talent in a crowded market and increase the pool of new recruits?
In the shortest term, optimising fleet efficiency can reduce the demand for drivers. Retail giant Asda, for example, has managed to increase the volume of its deliveries by 31% while employing 300 fewer drivers and travelling fewer miles, thanks to better logistics planning.
However, the company is not immune to the market situation, as Ian Stansfield, vice president Asda Logistics Services and Supply Chain, explained.
“Some 85% of our 2,600 drivers are over 55. They have good pay, good working conditions and good trucks, and they don’t leave, but within five to 10 years I will have a big problem,” he said.
“We will continue to drive efficiency hard and we will train more than 100 drivers this year. We need to attract a more diverse workforce – we only have a handful of women among our drivers.”
Early planning for peak periods has helped transport company John Raymond Transport cope with demand. The company’s fleet manager, Geraint Davies, said he started pre-booking additional agency drivers in the summer, with a guarantee of work for Christmas, and then worked with customers to smooth peaks of demand.
Nor is the driver shortage confined to employed drivers; agencies are experiencing exactly the same difficulties in sourcing qualified drivers. Julian Thompson, managing director of 24-7 Staffing, said his company faced demand for 75% more drivers in the build-up to the festive period last year, and worked with customers to offer drivers block bookings of work to secure their services.
“It involved a reduction in our margins to accommodate driver expectations for greater wage rates at Christmas,” he said. “It’s time we all passed on these costs to customers to protect our businesses.”
Recruitment company Blue Arrow, meanwhile, is now offering full employment for the drivers on its books (based on a selection process), changing their status from agency workers to full or part-time employees, with the guarantee of a full working week and a fixed salary.
If such measures help employers retain staff currently on the books, they are still only short-term solutions given that the number of retiring drivers is outstripping the number of new recruits. John Raymond Transport is looking to retain retired drivers on zero-hour contracts to help cover the shortage of available drivers, but somehow the freight industry needs to increase the size of the pool of available drivers by attracting fresh blood to the industry.
There is certainly scope to hire from new ‘communities’, given that 99% of truck drivers are male and only 3% of the English workforce is from a Black, Asian or Minority ethnic background. Any industry that currently fails to attract 50% of the population (women) has a sizeable audience to woo, but if transport firms are struggling to recruit from their traditional demographic groups, what chance do they have of luring others?
The romance of the role of truck driver – the lone hero, his rig, the adventure of the wide, open road – has vanished, if it ever existed. Today it’s a career considered by outsiders to involve long, unsociable hours, loneliness and low pay, and a job beset by congestion, pollution and poor conditions. In short, truck driving has an image problem.
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.
Campaign founder Gillian Kemp told the Daily Telegraph: “There are too few service stations on motorways and even fewer on main roads.
Lay-bys, where drivers often stop for their legally required breaks, rarely have toilets. We, the public, want our goods but we should also want those who bring us those goods to have access to well maintained lavatories. If we fail to look after their welfare, many more lorry drivers will be hanging up their keys.”
Human resource company Blue Arrow is lending its weight to the campaign by spearheading a petition that calls for clear recommendations from local government on minimum requirements for the availability and cleanliness of public, private and service station toilets.
Its message has reached parliament. Rob Flello MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freight Transport, said: “Facilities are bad enough for men, and poor or non-existent for women.” In a report published by his group, he called for companies and the Government to “work together to address any concerns with regard to the available facilities for those employed within the freight movement industry, in particular stop sites for road haulage staff”.
Initiatives are afoot to help drivers identify better roadside services, with apps like MotorwayBuddy (a Tripadvisor-style rating system for truck drivers to use), but it’s not just roadside pitstops where facilities are lacking. Many distribution centres are equally unwelcoming to drivers, claims Adrian Jones, national officer of Unite.
His union has worked with its members and employers to improve workplace facilities.
Enlightened employers are now offering drivers more flexible working hours, better shift patterns and fewer nights away from home, but a bigger issue is simply getting truck driving onto the radar of school leavers.
Flello’s parliamentary group said that career guidance or career awareness on the logistics sector was “limited or non-existent”.
Chris Dolby, learning and development manager at transport and logistics company Norbert Dentressangle, added: “Logistics employers must work with school, colleges and universities to let young people know about the exciting career opportunities that exist in the logistics sector.”
The issue does not affect only organisations operating trucks; the explosion in vans, paticularly those used as home delivery vehicles, also need more drivers – and some fleets are struggling to keep up with demand.
One of the major challenges is to create opportunities for younger drivers, given the prohibitively expensive insurance costs they incur. Back in 2009 the Government lowered the minimum age for driving a truck from 21 to 18, but it seems only family firms have taken advantage of this.
As the All Party Parliamentary Group reported: “Insurance is a major cost to the industry. 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 has reduced its driver age policy to accept drivers under 25, but these younger drivers are very closely monitored to de-risk as much as possible, according to the firm’s interim senior business HR partner Sarah Muirhead.
“We have renegotiated our insurance premium, run a licence acquisition scheme to support new drivers and have a lot of driver development programmes,” said Muirhead.
So far, the policy is proving successful, with a 6% increase in the number of drivers aged between 21 and 25, and no increase in incident rates.
Higher salaries, better work patterns, improved roadside conditions and a sense of pride in a career, not simply a job, should help van and truck fleets alike to recruit new drivers.
But, as Volvo’s Arne Knaben says: “The answer is not so much about what to do, but about how to get it done.”
The cost of qualification
The cost of qualifying as a truck driver is deterring new entrants to the industry. Figures supplied to Government indicate that qualificiation can cost between £2,000 and £3,000.
It’s an investment many school leavers are reluctant to make, and so are employers, wary that they may pay to train drivers, only for them to leave for rival companies.
With operative margins at a wafer thin 3%, finding funds to pay for training can be
prohibitive, although grants are available to employers willing to take on apprentices, and
in its March Budget the Government pledged to “work with firms on an industry-led solution to the driver shortage, including looking at the right level of access to, and funding support for, training”.
Pass rates at truck exams are poor, nudging just over 50% in the past five years. Whether this is a reflection on the quality of the training or the calibre of the candidates is not clear.
Moreover, even when they qualify, drivers are now obliged to undergo 35 hours of training over a five-year period to qualify for their Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC).
While seven hours per year doesn’t sound like a straw to break the camel’s back, there is a cost to employers to pay both for the training and for an agency driver while their employee undertakes the training. Self-employed drivers face the double whammy of the cost of the training plus the lost income due to a day without work.
Many employers are now ensuring their staff drivers, and even regular agency drivers, are offered in-house CPC training to keep costs down and ensure licences remain valid.
Solving the shortage crisis
Crewe-based Expert Logistics set out to do something about its driver recruitment issues.
“We realised that the pond we were fishing in was diminishing so we decided we needed to fish in a new pond,” said managing director Dave Ashwell.
Instead of trying to compete with every other logistics business for the available 7.5-tonne drivers, Expert Logistics decided to create its own.
“We looked for a different set of people, people who had experience of driving 3.5-tonne vehicles,” said Ashwell. “We chose the right people with the right type of customer service skills and the right personalities.”
By ‘upgrading’ existing employees and training them on the job (Expert Logistics specialises in two-man home delivery of white and brown goods), trainees could qualify while working, so it was a no-risk opportunity.
“At the end of it they were going to end up with a new skill and a new qualification with absolutely no necessary requirement to stay operating with us,” added Ashwell.
“For us the risk was limited because we were getting them to do deliveries for us anyway, just not on our 7.5-tonne fleet.”
He believes the only long-term solution to the driver shortage crisis is for the whole industry to combine its efforts to increase the pool of available drivers.