Just so there is no doubt from the start, Brexit has contributed to the driver shortage and the supply chain issues that the UK is now experiencing. Of that there is no doubt. But to present the whole issue as being the result of Brexit, rather than Brexit just being a part – particularly when other Countries are beginning to experience supply chain issues just the same, is not only lazy, it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the much wider issues that the UK is facing. It pretty much sums up the myopic view of today’s decision makers – who may already be the most incompetent that we have ever had.
The driver shortage is more to do with the long-term influence of the EU than Brexit ever was
Yes, the driver shortage can be attributed to the ending of free movement and the absence of Eastern Europeans who were previously happy to fill the gaps within the UKs logistics and supply chain industry. But to end the process of consideration there is lazy because it naturally follows that the only reason that there can be a problem is simply because we left the EU.
It is an argument that suits Remainers who tend to be idealists who identify with the impractical idealism of what the EU represents and have lives that are untouched by the hard realities that underpin what is a UK driver shortage and the many other issues that are now feeding into and will soon explode a supply chain issues which is spreading like wildfire across the world.
The obvious questions to ask are why was or why is the UK so dependent upon a pool of foreign drivers in the first place, and why are the gaps proving so hard to fill right now, given the true state of the economy and how many people are looking for decent jobs today?
One of the key issues to recruiting professional Heavy Goods Drivers is the cost and time that it takes to gain a Class 1 License that will enable the driver to work where the greatest need actually is.
Somewhat ironically, this problem was first created or initiated by EU bureaucracy in the 1990’s when the UK was still very much a Member, and the Brexit vote was nearly 20 years ahead. The EU laid down the requirement that professional or vocational driving licensing would have to be harmonised across the EU. This resulted in drivers no longer being able to train and pass a test for a Class 1 (articulated) license in the first instance at 21 years of age, and instead required that they pass a Class 2 (rigid truck) test first, and that they then retrain and take the test for a Class 1.
As much of the logistics and supply chain industry relies on the use of articulated trucks and detachable trailers because of the capacity and weight allowances that they can carry, along with the universality that is possible when you can attach one tractor unit to many different trailers that can then be used for many different purposes, it is simply not cost effective to use rigid vehicles for so many different uses and purposes.
This reality created the first bottleneck for those seeking driver qualification. Double the cost and the need to be trained all over again with no guarantees in either case that you will pass.
The next bottleneck was the EU requirement for vocational drivers to obtain and maintain a driver CPC, which is effectively a driver good-practice qualification which is built upon the time spent in training, rather than the somewhat questionable content that covers most of the time spent within.
New drivers must do a week in the classroom (5 days) and then do the equivalent of another day every year (5 days every 5 years) in order to keep their vocational license valid.
Of course, good practice is essential for all drivers who are responsible for such large and dangerous machines.
But the approach taken by the EU and implemented by the UK Government was the work of the nanny state at its absolute worst. Anyone who has attended these courses will know that whilst well-intended, they really overlook the reality that any good logistics operator would insist on better standards from their staff just to keep their business on the road.
The cost of the training as part of obtaining a first vocational license and then keeping it going is inhibitive for the individuals who self-fund their training and add unnecessary costs to the bottom line of Logistics businesses who naturally pass those costs on.
Tax Law changes
If the end of Free Movement has reduced the UK driving workforce in any way, it is likely to be much smaller than those with an agenda for it to sound like it is would ever be big enough to admit.
Much more likely to be the real reason that so many Eastern European Drivers are staying away is the changes to the UK Tax rules in April and specifically IR35, which has made being a self-employed ‘contract’ driver a significantly less financially attractive job to have for those making the commitment to cross Europe and service the UK supply chain.
Heavy Goods Driving is a lifestyle job
Another big problem that the logistics industry has is that the work is unsociable. The hours are long and for many of the transport operations employing drivers, they cannot function economically unless the driver stays out on the road with the vehicle, maximising the hours that these expensive capital assets are working, whilst ensuring that the time and distance that lorries are running without any loads are kept to the absolute minimum. This means that drivers may be away from home every week for 4-6 days at a time.
Yes of course there are some drivers who love being out on the road all week and modern truck cabs are often very well equipped. But ‘tramping’ as this is called has a massive cost on family and home life which is not in any way covered by even the salaries that some companies have begun to pay drivers since the current driver shortage began.
Low wages & poor conditions
Perhaps the most complicated of the issues contributing to the driver crisis are wages or rates of pay. Industry today undervalues many of the roles that are key to their existence and vocational drivers are probably undervalued even more than most.
Class 1 ‘artic’ drivers can easily earn a daily wage of £150 in the current market, which equates to an annual salary of around £39K for a 5-day working week.
This sounds great until you once again bear in mind that even those drivers doing shifts and going home every night will often be out on 15-hour days, whilst those who are ‘tramping’ are technically out for a lot more. This means that more often than not, the real hourly rate that professional drivers are attracting before tax and deductions could be as little as £10 per hour and little more.
This exploitation is not limited to heavy goods operations either. In van-based ‘courier’ type operations of the kind you would come into contact with when you are perhaps having parcels from an online order delivered to your door, many ‘owner drivers’ are attracted into daily commitments of many hours that don’t have the same regulation underpinning them as heavy goods operations. On the face of it, they are offered what appears an attractive rate of pay – perhaps £15 per hour or more, without any reference being made to the costs of fuel, wear and tear and commuting to a depot that might be an hour’s drive to their delivery area being included in the rate they are being paid.
It really isn’t uncommon for the people who are being used by companies who can afford to pay them an appropriate rate to be earning less than what we know as the National Minimum Wage or Living Wage. But because the drivers concerned are ‘self-employed’ they have the choice of accepting the ‘work’ or going elsewhere – which is what they will increasingly do as they realise that there is a better level of ‘take-home’ pay to be achieved by working somewhere else.
Getting the UK Workforce into the cab
Various incentives are being paid to new recruits by large companies now. But the way vocational drivers are paid is not simply about the value of money that they receive alone. Drivers are not treated and valued as well as they should be, particularly by junior, mid and senior managers who have never done the jobs that they do, and this makes for a very challenging working environment in which to work.
There needs to be a change in mindset regarding the way that we value all ‘low paid’ employees, who are arguably carrying out functions that are equally important – if not more so – than the management roles that might fit within 5 or 6 tiers of management above them.
The Cost-of-Living crisis that is now underway without any real media attention being focused upon it doesn’t make driving an attractive vocation. Why would anyone want to work these kinds of hours week in, week out just to find that the money they earned and took home at the end of this month might be the same as this time last month, but it simply doesn’t go as far?
This problem will increasingly reach further and further beyond the driver crisis. Because the economic system that the Government favours is now out of control, they will continue to create more money using various financial instruments such as Quantitative Easing to do so. In so doing, they will make the wage problem worse and worse.
The wage rises needed for the lower paid simply to feel like they are standing still and to remain able to afford the same things that they could last month will grow and grow as this inflationary crisis deepens. But employers will not be able to keep up with the speed of the spiral as they have to compromise their businesses just to keep people employed. It will reach a point – probably a lot sooner than anyone thinks – where it is impossible for the system to go on.
This is all leading to an inevitable outcome. What happens after that is not and it will be vital for everyone that the opportunity that comes out of a very dark period of crisis for us all is governed and utilised by people who actually care about us all when they decide what should be done on our behalf.
What can be done to keep the wheels turning?
Sadly, the fire of inflation is not something that the Government will do anything to control, simply because to do so would be to admit that what they have been doing is fundamentally wrong.
This means that Companies will keep having to pay more and more to get goods delivered until such time as the economy crashes – as it is increasingly certain that it soon will.
In terms of getting more drivers behind the wheel of the vehicles that keep the UK supply chain alive, the simplest and most easy way to address the problem is to make it easier to get people qualified to fill the vacancies that industry needs to be filled.
We have to accept that International Drivers must meet the qualification and standards that any foreign country they drive in or across demands. However, for domestic journeys, there is no reason why the Government couldn’t immediately revert to the old system where car drivers could train and qualify for a Class 1 License first time.
There is also little practical reason for the 5-day Driver CPC to continue to be required as it currently is and this could probably be reduced to just one day’s training, which itself could be provided by Transport Managers and trainers working for the Logistics Company itself who have themselves gained a Management level National CPC.
The Government could also intervene to make it easier for lorry drivers to park more freely, perhaps creating a moratorium on overnight parking regulations and encouraging local authorities to open up existing car parks at night and provide facilities for drivers where they do.
Very regrettably, there is an increasing feeling of inevitability about what is happening. Whilst there is a focus on a driver shortage, other industries are affected by shortages and more will soon join that list too. This is very much the thin end of the wedge and the early stages of problems coming to fruition, stored up over a very long period of time and only coming to the fore now because the Government handling of the Covid Pandemic and to a lesser degree Brexit have speeded the whole process up.
The movement of goods as we have known it is coming to an end. Supply chains will have to become much smaller by necessity as well as by welcomed design, and the days when a factory sends its products 400 miles up the Country to a Regional Distribution Centre, just so that they can come back on another truck to be delivered to the back door of a supermarket the other side of the road two days later will soon be gone. Big is not beautiful and the economies of scale are going to be outed for the con that they really are.
Instead of focusing on the effects of the problems that are now popping up all over the place, there is a need for proactive action to be taken to ensure that people within local communities will be able to function and eat. Government should be investing in farm to plate supply chains of all essential food stuffs and goods that are essential for daily life, by sponsoring and supporting cooperatives and socially-focused local business partnerships that work only to provide what the employees and managers need, whilst no longer being prohibited by providing good products to end users by many different agents inserting themselves into the supply chain at every opportunity possible, adding no real value but escalating the costs.