Boris Johnson told The Sun when challenged this week that “the whole world is facing shortages of lorry drivers, from Poland, to the USA to China”. What he didn’t go on to say was that all of those places have a much larger labour pool to call upon and that is why the UK is the only country with food shortages and fights on petrol station forecourts.
It has been well documented, on social media at least, that other countries have no empty shelves and that petrol stations are operating normally. It has also been explained that the unique combination of Brexit and covid is behind the current woes.
So, what can the UK do to get itself moving again? There are really only two solutions.
Home grown talent to address the shortages
Having left the EU largely to reduce our dependence on foreign labour, we need to recruit from within. So why aren’t British-born school-leavers flocking to become tomorrow’s truckers?
Since the 2016 referendum, the Road Haulage Association has repeatedly warned the government about driver shortages and the resultant effect Brexit could have on our supply chain. That year, the Office for National Statistics published the results of an industry-wide survey showing that an astonishing 80,000 HGV drivers with a valid CPC (certificate of professional competence) had chosen to seek alternative employment. The three principal reasons given were poor pay, treatment and facilities. Some 78 percent of all drivers asked would advise against entering the profession.
For a young person setting out in life, a low-pay job with long hours and bad conditions is not exactly living the dream, especially as – to add insult to injury – they would be expected to pay in the region of £3,000 to obtain the necessary licenses. There exist no schemes in Britain to assist in the funding required for this essential training.
In the past, the romance of a long-haul continental adventure attracted a certain few, but that’s not what’s needed now. The modern-day HGV driver in the UK will be picking up loads from our own ports and repetitively dropping off at inland warehouses, depots and shops, sleeping in their cab parked up in an industrial estate with an empty water bottle for a toilet and a food truck for sustenance.
The allure of better-paid jobs with better working conditions
An entry-level job at Aldi pays the same, with free training, better hours, pension schemes and a career path. Or, for those interested in self-employment, there are college courses and apprenticeships to become plumbers, electricians, painter decorators etc with higher earning capacity and professional independence. So unless things change drastically it’s safe to assume there won’t be queues of British kids clutching CVs outside Eddie Stobart’s.
Retired and former drivers have been asked to step in but have shown little interest in returning, even for a salary hike. For the job to become attractive to newcomers there needs to be a root and branch overhaul, from help with training costs, to pay, the provision of truck stops, better parking and comfort facilities at service stations and a shorter working week.
Unfortunately, in the four and a half years leading up to the end of the transition period, nothing has been done to address this problem. Up until that point, the gap in the market was filled by EU drivers entering the UK, delivering their product, and then using a facility known as cabotage, they would make internal deliveries before returning to the continent with their final load.
This is no longer possible for obvious reasons, and so we arrive at option number two.
Foreign labour or ‘controlled immigration’ for jobs like HGV drivers
As a last resort, the government has made available 5,000 temporary visas for EU HGV drivers to return to work in the UK. This is just a short-term arrangement to help us out and the visas expire at Christmas. But as Boris Johnson is quoted as saying above, there are driver shortages all over the place, so why would they come to the UK to work?
For one, conditions on the continent are on the whole vastly superior to those in the UK. Christopher Johns is a British truck driver from Sussex. In an interview with the Guardian on 27 September he bemoaned the lack of basic services for drivers in the UK, whereby they end up sleeping in random off street locations, which can often be dangerous, or the larger motorway service stations which charge £30 per night, for a bare minimum in terms of facilities.
He compares this to the situation in France where drivers are routinely provided with free hot showers and parking, restaurants, bars, and 24 hour access to hot drinks and bathrooms. As I live there, this week I went onto French motorways and photographed some of what he described.
Supply chain problems: a situation of our own making
Even if money is thrown at the problem of driver shortages, many EU drivers have read the British tabloids over the last few years and as Edwin Atema of the Dutch FNV truckers union told a rather stunned Radio 4 presenter recently, EU workers are unlikely to go to the UK “for a short-term visa to help them out of the shit they created themselves”.
And there lies the problem. Yes there are global driver shortages. And yes covid has been a global pandemic. But only Britain is in such dire straits. Britain has a higher employment rate than many of its European neighbours and has been proud of this fact for several years. But that means that certain jobs are simply not going to be taken up by the domestic population. And as Boris Johnson in his conference speech declared, he sees the future Britain as a high-skilled, high-wage economy.
So the question remains, who’s going to deliver the goods?