Will driver shortages spoil Christmas?

Photo of motorway traffic to illustrate driver shortages in haulage industry

The haulage industry must invest and reform if it is to tackle driver shortages, says Gethin Roberts of Drivers Direct

Nearly all the food we eat, most of our clothes, and almost everything we use to build and furnish our homes is, at some point, moved by road transport. With more than two million UK employees, road haulage is the UK’s fifth-largest industry and contributes over £70bn to the UK economy annually.

Haulage isn’t just about transportation of goods from A to B; its relationship to the success of British business is similar to the role of worker bees in food production – critical. But just as bees are under threat, the sector is facing unprecedented challenges this Christmas.

Driver shortages

We increasingly face driver shortages, ranging from about 45,000–60,000 depending on your source. Drivers are retiring from the industry in high numbers, while the sector is also suffering from an inability to attract new talent as HGV licence applications have dropped by more than 32,000 in the past five years.

The frustrating thing, however, is that for every driver the sector needs there are three people in the UK with a valid LGV licence who could do the work. But two in three choose not to – why?

The industry must take steps to improve its conditions so it can recruit and retain the drivers it needs. The starting point has to be greater investment in recruitment, training and driver welfare following years of underfunding, as well as improving roadside facilities for drivers, which are currently scarce and inadequate.

The industry is predominantly over 45, white and male. Until more is done regarding the approach to driver training, the funding of licence acquisition, and facilities for drivers, the sector is unlikely to broaden its appeal.

Why does it matter so much? Without the haulage industry stores would suffer from low levels of stock, with any lack of availability having a massive knock-on effect on retailers, the construction industry or manufacturers, who all rely on the sector to keep their businesses, and the UK economy, on track.

Christmas is set to put a massive strain on depleted resources, yet it is a critically important time to get right. A quarter of all personal spending takes place during the holiday season. This puts an inevitable strain on the already understaffed haulage industry.

There are, however, some positive changes. There are just over 400,000 heavy goods vehicles registered in Britain and although the number has remained fairly static for many years, productivity of new vehicles has increased. The vehicles also offer greater capacity.

There continues to be a big increase in double-shifting – not of drivers but of vehicles. The newer vehicles are much more efficient and require less downtime.

The sector is also embracing new technology and becoming an increasingly IT-driven industry, allowing logistics businesses to use technology to plan, monitor and manage how a vehicle is best used.

It’s likely to be a challenging Christmas as businesses compete for the limited resources. Let’s hope however that with continued improvements to technologies, transport and training the sector is once again able to take on the challenge.

Gethin Roberts is a member of IoD North West


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