Supply chain

HGV driver shortage and the wider industry – what got us here?

Adobe Stock (image by Igor Krivosheev)

Having lacked interest in school, and subsequently messing up my A-Levels, I left school at 17, looking for a solution, and joined the Royal Navy. Within my four years of service, I trained as an aircraft technician and completed a brief tour of Afghanistan during the peak of operations, before leaving the forces around 2006.

With little idea what to do next, I started working as a laundry van driver in central London. This which was my first exposure to heavy commercial vehicles – the industry that I would later become part of.

Becoming a HGV driver

Over the years, I gained both my Category C and Category C+E licences (heavy rigid and heavy articulated goods vehicle, respectively), and then worked my way through various training, management and finally consulting and lecturing positions.

In 2019, I set up my own business, which I am still expanding, and this has enabled me to gradually phase out the driving work, though during the pandemic I found myself driving again full time, out of necessity. Now, I have one month left of occasional driving shifts and then I will be stepping away from the driving seat for good.

I appreciate this is a position of privilege to some extent, as very few drivers experience development opportunities beyond the driving seat, but I have had to work exceptionally hard to build the business to the point where I can now step away from employment.

A shortage of HGV drivers

Currently, the UK has a shortage of approximately 90,000–100,000 heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers. But this is not a new phenomenon; the HGV industry has suffered for the last 15 years with shortages, yet it is only hitting the news now that the public are seeing shortages on the shelves. This is an industry screaming for help in the face of being unable to recruit drivers.

There are many causes for this shortage. Covid-19 has been a big factor. Lots of EU drivers returned home to their families before lockdowns were enforced. Many faced an uncertain future, unsure if they would ever return due to the restrictions on movement. Driving training and testing has also been affected by the pandemic as facilities were closed, meaning the industry is now suffering a backlog as well as falling in demand.  

But what has proved to be more significant than the impact of the pandemic, is Brexit.

The impact of Brexit on HGV drivers

Since 2004, when additional countries joined the EU, our heavy vehicle driver workforce has been increasingly made up of migrant workers from Eastern European countries. They appear to possess a work ethic that is somewhat different to ours; many are more willing to work the long hours required by the industry, which contrasts with the ageing, tired and ever-more-reluctant UK workforce, who find the job less appealing.

Much of the Brexit campaign was built on a misplaced idea of ‘British jobs for British people’. In reality, many of the British population do not fully understand what this particular job demands.

The conditions of the job of a HGV driver

Despite it being an extremely taxing, manual job, the hours are still extremely long, often up to 15 hours per day, with very limited rest time. The roads are increasingly dangerous and riddled with aggressive drivers. Work conditions are often unhygienic, with a lack of washing facilities and places to buy healthy food.

Socially, the job is difficult too. Family life is difficult to maintain with the long hours, lack of rest, and general exhaustion. Many people in the industry do not treat HGV drivers with respect, swearing and treating them like an inconvenience. And finally, the industry is rife with outdated views of pretty much everything; every ‘ism’ you can imagine is present, with awful sexism, racism, and general xenophobia, due in large part to the blue-collar demographic, and also partly because it has never been forced to change with the times.

HGV drivers must also deal with highly complex regulations and the severe legal consequences from doing the job wrong. For this, drivers can face very high fines and potentially custodial sentences for making mistakes or not following the rules, which is as it should be in the interest of road safety, but the salary does not reflect this added risk and complexity for the individual.

Costs of being an HGV driver

Until recently, due to a loophole in tax regulations, drivers were paid as if they were ‘self-employed’. This was recently adjusted to a point where drivers must now become employees, meaning many drivers took a significant cut in their income. Of course, many less-scrupulous drivers were paying no tax at all on the back of the IR35 regulations, so they were hit the hardest when this changed, and they decided to exit the industry.

Training and license acquisition does not come cheap to HGV drivers, starting at a minimum of £3,000. With no guarantee of a job at the end, due to the insurance risk of new drivers, most drivers find they have to work sporadically or sit on the licence for two years before employers will consider them.

On top of the training cost, an additional £2,000 per annum is usually levelled at drivers with less than two years experience, and an even higher cost for those under the age of 25. 

A combination of all the above in varying degrees is responsible for where we are now, but it’s not a new problem. We are just experiencing the perfect storm, due to inactivity by the government and industry to address the well-documented problem over a span of 15–20 years.

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So, what can we do about it?

In the short term, we need the migrant workforce back; to do so, the government must be willing to grant visas to those who want to return to the country to live and work. Currently, they are refusing to do this, in part due to their ignorance of the blue-collar working world.

HGV drivers should be added to the ‘skilled workers’ list, rather than only HGV mechanics and instructors, and they should specifically be added to the shortage occupation list.

An issue that has been building for 15 years is not an overnight fix.

To effectively solve the HGV driver shortage, we must look to how post-16 education works. Since the mid-1990s, everyone has been pushed into university, discouraged from considering other industries that require vocational, not academic, skills and qualifications. Today, we are seeing the impact of this, as an entire sector of necessary workforce is missing.

The pay for HGV drivers is also a necessary component to address, as many are expecting to receive a long overdue pay rise. However, this will be offset with a sharp rise in prices over the coming period; we are already witnessing the initial stages of this, reflected in the increased prices of bread and petrol. In the face of sharp rises in inflation, the Bank of England will likely raise interest rates in an effort to combat that, meaning a drop in real value of peoples spending power. The biggest disappointment is that the supply and demand component (that has led to the pay rises) is being flagged as a success on the back of Brexit.

The perception of the job and industry must also be altered to what it really is: a vital part of the economy. Conversations about autonomous vehicles are also damaging to the HGV industry, as they are unlikely to be a viable alternative to a human driver delivering goods, or at least not for any sort of realistic timescale from here.

Finally, there must be more perks and benefits of the job. Drivers have long lacked support, be it sick pay outside of SSP, generous pension contributions, or mental health advice. These positions need to change.

A changing world and a suffering workforce

The world has changed: the way we work, the way we view our lives, the work life balance, the sort of work we desire, the things we buy, how we buy them and our expectations for delivery services. All of these have drastically affected our lives and the transport sector, and we need to accept what that means for an important but long under appreciated occupation.

It has been a great shame of my working life to bear witness to the departure from the EU, throwing away everything it stands for as a force for good in the world, and the growth of division, hatred, greed, and racism in the UK, which I have seen reflected in an industry I have dedicated a great portion of my life to.

I hope for a brighter future but fear we are in for a rough ride ahead, until we can admit to the problems of our doing, and muster up some solutions to the problems in an industry that we are so reliant on but only just becoming aware of. This has been the driver for everything I have been doing recently.

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