HGV driver shortage may take some time to resolve - column by Keith Phillips, head of transport, haulage and logistics at Duncan & Toplis

Two years ago, we officially left the European Union, and one year ago the transition period came to an end.
Keith Phillips, head of transport, haulage and logistics at Duncan & ToplisKeith Phillips, head of transport, haulage and logistics at Duncan & Toplis
Keith Phillips, head of transport, haulage and logistics at Duncan & Toplis

While the benefits and drawbacks of Brexit will be debated for many years to come, one consequence we’ve been dealing with is the impact that this, and the pandemic, has had on the number of people available to work in key sectors of the economy. One of these is haulage.

As head of haulage at Duncan & Toplis, I work with 40 haulage businesses across Lincolnshire and the wider East Midlands, providing them with business advice and accountancy support. Needless to say, the driver shortage has had an impact on them, as it has on the whole sector.

Official figures show that between October and December 2021, the number of job vacancies in the transport and storage sector had risen by 81%, with 56,000 jobs unfilled. This is a huge figure, but the Road Haulage Association has warned that, in total, the industry is short of around 100,000 drivers.

Over the past two years, the driver shortage came to a head, as vacancies rapidly increased with European drivers leaving the UK due to the pandemic, or due to Brexit. Since their initial departure however, they have then found it difficult, unappealing or uneconomical to return to the UK since the new migration and border procedures were introduced. However, while this is the reason for the recent spike in job vacancies, the sector’s problems with recruitment and retention stretch back much further.

Two of the biggest issues behind this have been the ageing workforce, with many drivers retiring, and the allure of independent vehicle driving, with HGV drivers switching to driving their own delivery vans. Many older drivers opted to retire during the pandemic, rather than have to contend with restrictions which meant they had to stay inside their vehicles, on top of the queues and disruption they often encountered on journeys across the channel. Meanwhile, van driving has become a very attractive option because it offers greater independence, they can potentially earn more money, and it allows them to spend less time away from their families.

While the government has intervened to try and speed up the process of securing an HGV licence as well as relaxing visa restrictions, allowing drivers to drive longer hours and supporting apprenticeships, haulage companies have found a much more effective solution: The majority of the companies I work with have opted to focus on increasing driver pay and improving working conditions, and it’s making a real difference for them and others across the sector who are doing the same.

On average, driver pay for my clients has increased by 14% in the past year and they’re offering options like flexible working, fixed hours and fixed days for full or part-time work. This is making the work much more attractive.

From what my clients are telling me, the sector is succeeding in turning the tables now: Indeed, the latest set of job market statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show, for the first time in 12 months, there were 1,000 fewer vacancies in the October–December period than there were in September to November.

However, there is still a long way to go to resolving this crisis because the underlying causes still need addressing and, unfortunately, higher pay for drivers means increased costs for hauliers, which can also mean higher costs for the companies they work with and end consumers. This also means companies have to prioritise higher margin work to the detriment of others, adding to delays and disruption as well as the backlog of goods at ports.

Furthermore, a consequence of attracting drivers from one job to another is that it creates recruitment pressures in other areas of the economy at a time when, overall, job vacancies are at record highs and unemployment rates are low.

Fundamentally, I think the nationwide recruitment crisis could be with us for many months, and possibly years to come because the causes of it either aren’t being addressed or the solutions will take a long time to have a meaningful impact. For more information on Duncan & Toplis and our range of services for hauliers and other businesses, visit www.duncantoplis.co.uk.