Wholesalers are facing a crisis in recruiting HGV drivers, with countless vacancies now unfilled. Martyn Fisher finds out why lorry driving has lost its appeal and how you can get back in the driving seat.
As a child, I used to collect model lorries. A Safeway-branded curtainsider was a particular favourite. But by the time I was a teenager, I viewed lrries – or at least those who drove them – more apprehensively, thanks to a viewing of Steven Spielberg’s Duel.
Trivialities aside, there is something of a duality about the lorry driving profession: the romantic and the ugly. But as it stands, the situation is fairly desperate for British businesses trying to hire HGV drivers, including wholesalers.
Martin Race, MD at Bestway Wholesale, says: “Recruiting lorry drivers is an issue, particularly in certain geographical areas, although pretty much nationally now, too. It seems to have gone out of fashion.
“There are very few lorry drivers under the age of 22 or even 25. I don’t know if it’s because the young generation thinks that lorry driving is not sexy.”
So, how can wholesalers make the most of a tricky situation and what is being done to improve matters?
Research conducted by the Freight Transport Association (FTA) found that there is a shortage of 35,000 HGV drivers. Added to that, only 2% of HGV drivers in the UK are 24 or under, according to its research, with 64% of drivers aged more than 45.
Between June 2015 and May 2016, 70,233 HGV Category C licences were issued, compared to 55,161 in the period from June 2014 to May 2015 – “a substantial increase but just getting back to pre-recession levels,” says Sally Gilson, head of skills campaigning at the FTA.
The perception is that the shortage is primarily caused by not enough youngsters coming into the profession, a situation complicated by the high costs that businesses need to absorb to insure drivers younger than 25. However, some experts believe that it is myopic to see this factor as the be-all and end-all.
Kirsten Tisdale, a principal of logistics consultancy Aricia, has explored the topic in depth. She says that there are around 80,000 drivers aged 25-44 who have a HGV licence and a driver qualification card, but who choose not to use them – they are merely keeping their hand in “just in case”, Tisdale says.
She adds: “This is about re-inspiring people who took their licences and who could not hack the job for whatever reason. If it were just one or two people, then you could put it down to their own unrealistic expectations. But it looks like there are tens, even hundreds of thousands – our industry is less attractive not just to younger people, but to any age group.”
Lucy Campbell, driver liaison at Logistic Job Shop’s Skills for Logistics programme, agrees, noting that her company’s own research found that many licence-holders are choosing not to drive, citing poor treatment by employers as the reason.
Campbell says: “Drivers are the backbone of our economy, and should be treated with respect. We have a duty of care as employers to make our staff and candidates applying for roles feel valued and respected.
“We hope new government initiatives, such as the Apprentice Levy and HGV Driver Trailblazer Apprenticeships, are going to dramatically increase the number of people considering driving jobs and entering into various careers in the logistics industry in general, as well as the apprenticeship option.
“However, it starts with how potential drivers, and drivers who have hung up their gloves, perceive the industry. If the long hours come with decent pay, respect and appropriate amenities at rest stops or employee yards, then the position becomes a lot more attractive.”
Jenny Tippins is a HGV driver who has previously driven for Travis Perkins but who currently drives for Royal Mail through an agency. As well as holding two master’s degrees, she also works as a trainer in the driver certificate of professional competence.
She says that there are a variety of points employers, including wholesalers, need to consider when it comes to boosting their chances of hiring HGV drivers. “I think that most of what drivers want could come under the heading of respect,” she says. “Drivers want to know that their employers are prepared to listen to their concerns and to treat them like human beings.
“It is essential to provide good facilities for drivers in their own workplace and ensure that the sites where they collect and deliver from do the same – as is offering regular and predictable hours, with minimal hanging around during the shift, as this gives drivers the chance to have a life outside of work, which improves mental health and workplace morale.
“Regular hours also allow drivers to look after their own health more easily. The job of driving is sometimes dangerous and requires a high level of knowledge of general regulations even before drivers start to learn the specifics of their own load. A rate of pay which is commensurate with the level of danger faced and knowledge required is vital.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport adds that the government is working on improving conditions for drivers. For example, transport minister John Hayes recently chaired meetings on driver facilities and the driver shortage with the road haulage sector, truck-stop operators, unions, local councils and Highways England.
The spokesperson adds: “We recognise the vital role that the haulage industry plays in our economy and we are working closely with the industry as it explores ways to boost the number of HGV drivers.
“We have already invested £17m in training for the industry, and improved apprenticeships and advice available through the National Careers Service. And from May, the industry will be able to access apprenticeship levy funding to train the next generation of HGV drivers.
“We are working across government to ensure hauliers can easily access funding, find training providers and identify good quality candidates.”
Palmer & Harvey is among those wholesale businesses which has looked into ways that it can retrain current members of staff to become HGV drivers, in an effort to help alleviate the situation. Bestway has explored this option, too, as well as looking into whether it should run its own apprentice scheme.
The FTA’s Gilson highlights a number of projects designed to engage youngsters with the logistics industry, including Think Logistics, which is a programme that goes into schools to teach students about logistics and the varied jobs available in that sector. Last year, the FTA exhibited for the first time at the Skills Show (pictured on page 16). The show is an annual event that is attended by 100,000 students, teachers and parents looking to gain careers advice. The body will be there again this year, talking to thousands of youngsters about the careers on offer in logistics, from top to bottom, aiming to make HGV driving seem like a viable and valuable career option.