Hauliers face Covid and Brexit HGV driver shortage
- Credit: Ross Taylor/Daniel Mason/ITV
A ‘perfect storm’ means Cambridgeshire hauliers face one of their toughest challenges.
A nationwide shortage of lorry drivers and a fall-out from Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic are mainly to blame.
More than 100,000 drivers are needed according to the Road Haulage Association.
Knowles Transport, with depots in Wisbech and Wimblington, is familiar with the issues but feel it is more fortunate than many.
“We’re net recruiters through this driver shortage period so we’ve recruited more people than have left,” said managing director Alex Knowles.
“When Covid hit, we saw 30 per cent increases in volumes overnight at a time when we’re not traditionally that busy, so that took some getting over.”
Mr Knowles said they employ 150-160 drivers, mostly from the UK, an increase of around 10pc since the start of this year.
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Knowles Transport has been forced to adapt to Covid-19 and the risks it brings, even if there has been a surge in demand.
Mr Knowles said: “The last 18 months have been challenging, but I also think it has for every single industry going.
“The demand has been steady for us; 95pc of what we do is food-related and the brand is getting stronger all the time.”
Changes to IR35 rules, designed to prevent drivers from setting up limited companies to pay less tax, could reduce the number of lorry drivers returning to the UK for possibly less money.
The level of pay and working conditions are also key factors in the driver shortage, something which Mr Knowles said has not been problematic.
“We have different types of roles for our drivers where they can make it tie in with their lifestyles, whether that’s weekend work, night work, daytime work,” he said.
“We believe we offer the best pay in the area for our drivers and that’s the reason why we’ve been able to retain so many.”
Buffaload Logistics in Ellington near Huntingdon has also avoided entering crisis mode posed by health and political barriers.
As well as Covid, one of the main hurdles Buffaload has faced is the reform to IR35 rules, having lost many of its drivers.
CEO Ross Taylor said around 10 to 20pc of his 400-strong workforce from Europe returned home because of the rule change.
“We were heavily affected for a couple of weeks where we had to cut back supply on what we could deliver,” he said.
“We have had to increase our price, but we’ve increased our wages by 26pc.
“We are in a very fortunate situation where we managed to recruit a lot; our competitors, some are 50-60 people short every day.”
A point Mr Taylor emphasised for the driver shortage was the treatment of drivers and without improvement, more drivers could be lost.
“They are treated like second-class citizens,” he said.
“I’m trying to make the job better for everybody to get people to improve where they deliver to, rather than being treated badly.”
Hauliers report a backlog in HGV driving tests and, in turn, seen a decline in the number of qualified drivers.
Last month, the government announced plans for a consultation to allow drivers to take one test instead of two to drive a rigid and articulated lorry.
For Turners of Soham, they now run shorter training courses so drivers can be fully qualified in three months.
Robert Young, training manager at Turners, found two drivers obtained their licence after a year rather than after the usual four to five months due to lockdown.
Managing director Paul Day, who employs more than 2,000 people, told ITV: "Fundamentally, there are not enough drivers within the UK to cover the amount of work of transport movements that is required by economy and country.”
Improving working conditions, more flexibility around working times and a temporary relaxation in drivers’ hours rules were also part of government plans to tackle the shortage.
However, these measures have been condemned by hauliers.
Mr Knowles said: “We have the perfect storm of no HGV testing for the last 18 months and drivers have retired, and we have a storm of there being an uptick in the economy generally because of ‘Freedom Day’.
“We’re now at that point where it’s hit us and I think, unfortunately, it was always going to take some empty shelves for the government to realise and do something about it.”
Mr Knowles believes the shortage is more of “a skills issue” within the sector and will not be solved by increasing drivers’ hours.
Mr Taylor said the process to get an HGV licence is “complicated”, which might deter drivers from going into the industry.
The shortage in drivers has come at a cost, and in Turners’ case, it is £500,000 a week in lost revenue.
Knowles Transport, however, is planning to open an HGV driving school in Wisbech by the end of this year to encourage more people into the industry as they look to expand.
Mr Knowles believes changing the image of the road haulage industry to potential recruits could be vital if there is any hope that the lorry driver shortage can be recovered.
There are some drivers who have stayed at the same haulier for more than 30 years, but some of Cambridgeshire’s firms are pushing for more young blood.
“Haulage is not a sexy game,” Mr Taylor said, “but we can always recover.
“I’ve got lorry drivers who like lorry driving, but some who have worked through the business and ended up in management, so the progression is there.”
Mr Knowles, whose father and grandfather were lorry drivers for his firm, feels that telling young people from an early age about the industry could be the way forward.
“I don’t consider any lorry driver as a second-class citizen. They’re key to the sector, but the term is something we need to change,” he said.
“The initial signs are good in terms of getting in schools and telling students what lorry driving is about.
“We’ve adapted to most things in the last 90 years, so we feel we’re in a better position than most.”