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HGV SHORTAGE: Lorry drivers say recruitment, not Brexit, to blame

HGV SHORTAGE: Lorry drivers say recruitment, not Brexit, to blame

Lorry driver BJS (Alex Footman, Image: BJS

Fuel, furniture and food and drink are just some of the items in short supply due to a nationwide lack of lorry drivers.

Coronavirus, Brexit and tax changes have all contributed to the estimated shortfall of 100,000 qualified drivers.

But what do lorry drivers, and their bosses, think? What do local council and business leaders say? And what is it like for a company struggling with a lack of drivers, and how do the drivers trying to fill the gap feel about the industry?

The LDRS spoke to a few individuals to find out more.

‘I had nothing to lose’ 

Alex Footman wasn’t always behind the wheel of a truck. This time last year he worked in recruitment sourcing drivers for contract clients. It was while sat at his desk, looking at the drivers’ salaries, that he realized he would rather be on the open road, earning more money.

“I had nothing to lose by giving it a go”, explains Alex.

The pandemic slowed down Alex’s career transition and his test was delayed from November last year to April this year. He said he was “frustrated” by the delay so funded the test himself.

He said: “If ever you were tempted to have a go at being a driver now is definitely the time because there is such a shortage of class one HGV qualified people in the country at the minute.”

The UK currently has a shortage of over 100,000 drivers, slowing down the delivery of essentials such as food and petrol. Around 25,000 HGV drivers who were EU nationals left the UK in 2020.

“A lot of the Eastern European drivers that were here and working in the UK left due to Brexit and the fact their jobs weren’t classed as ‘skilled workers’ so they were not permitted working visas to stay.”

He added: “Given the situation now I reckon the government might want to change their mind on that.”

‘Our industry is not promoted at school level’

Gary Fox, 47, training and quality manager at Clarke Transport, in Tipton, first joined the military aged 17. After serving eight years, and obtaining his HGV licence, he worked in recruitment for HGV drivers, before rising up the ranks of Clarke.

Mr Fox argues there has “always been a driver shortage”, and claims for every one HGV job there are up to seven to eight vacancies. The key problem, he says, is the lack of advertisement in education in local schools.

The current HGV workforce has an average age of 57.

He said: “The main thing is that our industry is not promoted at all at school level. Training is too expensive, and school or college students are unaware that they could earn between £30k and £50k within a short space of time. There’s no industry knowledge being spread.”

Mr Fox is also critical of university and its role in diminishing the aspirations of those who may not fit into academic education.

“It’s always ‘go to university’; ‘go sixth form’; ‘do higher education’. Whereas they can go there, and end up £60,000 in debt doing criminology because they’ve seen CSI. Is that fair to say? Or they could come into a company like this, learn the ropes from grassroots levels – learn how to be forklift driver, get their car licence, drives vans, and so on. Within two years, you could be earning up to £50,000.

“I have schoolkids told because they do not like school, or find it difficult, that they are ‘stupid’ and ‘thick’. That is simply not true. Their talents lie elsewhere, and we can help with that.”

“We’ve got vehicles with double beds, microwaves, fridge freezers. It’s a better office than what we have got,” he added.

‘Everyone is fighting for the same drivers’

Darren Paine, director of Hilltop Transport, a haulage logistics business, argues that the main reason for the sector’s crisis comes from tax changes.

The tax change, also known as a ‘IR35’ were first implemented in April this year. The new rules states haulage agencies that turnover more than £10m per annum, or have in excess of 50 employees, are no longer able to hire drivers who are working as a limited company.

Mr Paine said: “The self employed tax regulations was another hammer blow in terms of driver availability. Everyone is fighting for the same sample of drivers.

“Even though we don’t tend to use a lot of agency drivers, a lot of people who were fully employed we’re getting offered pots of gold by the agencies. So to keep older drivers and to attract drivers, we’ve had to put our rates up a couple of times this year to try and try and keep hold of our drivers and look after them.”

HM Revenue and Customs argue this change will make tax evasion more difficult as drivers now need to be employed on a pay as you earn (PAYE) basis.

But critics argue many lorry drivers are engaged in a freelance capacity and changes to the IR35 rules have resulted in agency labour withdrawing their services.

Mr Paine said: “The lack of drivers means the costs will now go onto my customers. That means prices of goods will go up. I’d say if I had a job for a driver, we would have 75% less candidates applying than we would a year ago. That is really worrying.”

Corin Crane, CEO of the Black Country of Chamber of Commerce said: “The haulage industry continues to face pressures ranging from a shortage of qualified drivers as a result of a lack of newly qualified drivers, previous drivers from other countries who returned home during the pandemic and following Brexit, the impact of regulatory changes around IR35 and any drivers placed on furlough having found work in other sectors.

“Often, it is difficult to untangle one issue from another.  However, along with fuel shortages, the rising costs of freight and energy are combining to create a perfect storm for those reliant on just in time supply chains to what is rapidly becoming a just in case supply chain.

“Working with businesses and other regional support agencies, the Black Country Chamber of Commerce has called on government to implement a range of immediate, practical solutions to address these and other issues facing businesses today.”

Cllr Rajbir Singh, leader of Sandwell Council, said: “This is a national problem that national government needs to address urgently. It is affecting all parts of the country including Sandwell and strong action needs to be taken as soon as possible.

“We will continue to listen to local businesses, industry and their representatives to assist where we can with local solutions and initiatives where appropriate.”


Words: Rhi Storer, Local Democracy Reporter

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