You do not need to be part of the haulage industry to know that there is a shortage of lorry drivers across Europe and that this has caused huge disruption across the transport and logistics sector. The International Road Transport Union (IRU) has predicted that the rate of unfilled truck driver positions across Europe is going to triple by 2026 and over 60% of available positions will be unfilled. The tangible effect of this, as predicted by the IRU, is that over half of all freight movements across Europe will be impacted. In the UK, Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, changes to the laws regarding off-payroll working and a lack of younger workers entering the industry are just some of the factors that have played a part in creating a deficit of around 100,000 HGV drivers in this country alone.
The industry needs assistance on a long-term basis. Much of the recent assistance has addressed issues on a short-term basis only, and, whilst any initiative may offer a partial solution at first sight, legal and social implications must also be considered.
Post-Brexit, the Government introduced temporary measures to relax the regulations around driver working hours, increasing the daily driving limit from nine to eleven hours per day and allowing drivers to change their rest patterns. Although in theory this may have seemed a solution, with UK drivers having the ability to make longer trips, the measures were not as effective as had been hoped and media reports note that not all haulage employers actually applied the relaxation of the rules in practice.
In any event, the COVID-19 pandemic brought socioeconomic change and many people have, and are, switching careers for a better work-life balance. The industry will probably struggle to attract new talent if longer hours became the norm. From an employment and regulatory law perspective, rules around working time are implemented for health and safety reasons and to help achieve a more productive workforce. Permitting drivers to increase their hours is considered to pose a health and safety risk to not only themselves but to others on and around the road, and would potentially increase accidents leading to more legal disputes and burdens for both drivers and employers. From a legal, social and practical viewpoint, it therefore appears that making any further change to working time laws is not the solution.
Many commercial drivers in the UK were European nationals and left the country due to Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. To alleviate short-term pressures, the UK Government ran a temporary visa scheme for haulage drivers and introduced a short term measure allowing non-visa nationals to work in the UK as HGV fuel tanker drivers. Despite this effort from the Government, there was still criticism that the measures were not enough and that there were insufficient visas to confer viable immediate relief or address the root of the growing industry crisis. Again, these measures were only temporary and are no longer in force.
A future solution could be to add commercial drivers to the eligible occupations and/or shortage occupation list enabling qualified foreign nationals to apply for a Skilled Worker Visa, although this would have cost and administrative implications on the employer who would be required to hold a sponsorship licence and comply with Home Office requirements which can be complex. There is also an English language requirement that may in itself pose further difficulties.
However, it appears the Government has moved away from focusing on inward migration to attracting existing UK nationals and settled workers to the industry.
Apart from the lack of available talent, the sector also recognises that another problem that needs to be addressed is the generally poor working conditions of drivers.
All workers are entitled to work in environments where health and safety risks are properly controlled. Employers are dealing with more strike action and union activity in recent months and poor working conditions will only add fuel to the employer and workforce relationship.
The current dissatisfaction with driver working conditions makes it seem unlikely that the industry in its current state is attractive for new entrants and makes it less likely that new recruits will want to remain. Improving working conditions is an obvious and essential step towards stopping the shortage of drivers, but is, to an extent, out of haulage companies' control. Instead, the responsibility falls more directly on the Government, local authorities and even businesses in other industries, such as those who provide facilities used by drivers. As such, the Government has invested £52.5 million into improving roadside facilities for drivers in the hope that this will provide safe, clean and comfortable areas for drivers to rest in. This is certainly a step in the right direction, and will hopefully go a long way to ease the problems.
New skills training
In an attempt to attract UK nationals and settled workers to the industry, the Government has focused on UK driver training and the number of tests being carried out. It invested £34m to create an HGV "Skills Bootcamp", which made space for 11,000 new drivers to undergo training. Providing that this measure is combined with the investment into improving driver facilities along with cash incentives, then this has the potential to go a long way into helping ease the strain on the sector.
The UK Government has also tried relaxing the rules on driving tests, allowing parts of the test to be carried out by non-DVSA examiners and prioritised processing provisional HGV driving licences at the DVLA, reducing the processing time down to five days to make it easier for drivers to begin training.
A further conundrum for employers is in respect of misconduct situations involving drivers. For example, in a pre-shortage scenario, a driver who failed to carry out effective daily walk around checks and accurately record the results may have faced disciplinary action. Now, employers may not be inclined to so readily discipline and possibly dismiss in the same way as this would reduce an already depleted workforce. As such, a more relaxed attitude towards driver conduct may potentially emerge when rules are breached. If various employees are being treated differently over similar conduct issues due to external factors this creates a risk of potential claims in the Employment Tribunal over disparity and inconsistency of treatment.
Creating stability and regularity, especially at a time of general wage inflation and a cost of living squeeze, may encourage people to enter, or return to, the industry. Cash incentives and salary spikes is an area that has already seen an improvement, with employers such as Waitrose, Tesco and M&S offering between £50,000 and £60,000 as a starting salary. However, not all employers will be able to offer similar amounts, bringing into question whether a Government contribution to increase salaries for smaller employers could be useful. The annual rise in the National Minimum Wage from April 2023 may not be enough to attract new entrants to the labour market who may want much more than this to consider a career as a haulage drive.
It seems there isn't any "quick fix" and that a complete overhaul of the industry may be needed in order to alleviate the problems that are currently being faced. Both short and long term strategies are needed to ensure that UK freight movements can return to full operating levels as smoothly as possible. A combination of new immigration laws, pay and reward incentives and better working conditions may help to solve the overall problem.