British government pledges to help reduce UK truck driver shortage

British government pledges to help reduce UK truck driver shortage

The British government is promising to play an active role in helping reduce a truck driver shortage that trucking companies or hauliers say threatens the U.K.’s economy.

In its 2015 budget, released March 18, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to work with road haulage firms “on an industry-led solution to the driver shortage, including looking at the right level of access to, and funding support for, training.”

The Treasury Ministry also pledged to review the speed with which Heavy Goods Vehicle driving tests and driver medical assessments take place and to consider options to speed both “to help address the shortage of qualified HGV drivers.”

That’s good news for Mike Farrall. As chairman of Farrall’s Transport, a trucking, warehousing and logistics operator in Chester, in northwestern England near the border with Wales, he has trouble finding qualified lorry drivers to operate his 50 trucks, all hauling freight within the U.K.

“I can find a driver today, probably quite easy, but is he skilled? No way,” Farrall told JOC.com. “I would go through quite a few people before finding a half decent guy.”

The U.K. faces a shortfall of 45,000 to 60,000 truck drivers, according to the Freight Transport Association, a British shipper group. At the worst, that’s nearly twice the number of additional truck drivers the American Trucking Associations says is currently needed to haul freight in the U.S., about 30,000 to 35,000, though other estimates run as high as 100,000 drivers.

British shippers and truck operators have pressed London to help fund training and apprenticeship schemes for would-be drivers as part of a broad-based solution to the shortage.

The situation in Britain is another sign — alongside impromptu trucker strikes in South America and elsewhere — that problems recruiting, paying and keeping drivers are increasingly global.

“Logistics is suffering a huge shortfall of drivers which, if not addressed, will act as drag on the economic growth the Chancellor (of the Exchequer, George Osborne) wants to see,” James Hookham, FTA managing director of policy and communications, said in a statement.

“FTA welcomes the moves to speed up the processes associated with getting HGV drivers on the road as excellent news, but solving this in the longer term means attracting more young people to the industry,” Hookham said.

The cost of acquiring an HGV licence, the British equivalent of a commercial drivers license, runs about £3,000, almost $4,500, and that acts as a major barrier to young people interested in becoming truck drivers, Hookham said.

There are plenty of barriers to becoming a lorry driver in the U.K., and many of them will be familiar to U.S. truckers. First, many in the U.K. blame the proliferation of regulations for raising costs and complicating the driver’s job.

Mike Farrall, chairman of U.K. trucking operator Farrall's Transport, says lorry drivers need higher pay, better training and more respect.

“We’re running under almost two sets of rules, the tachograph driving rules (regulating hours of service), and then the EU working time directive (which provides for a 48-hour week), and drivers have got to conform to both,” Farrall said. “Rest and break times are different between the two regulations and you’ve got to comply with both of them,” he said.

Both rules are European Union regulations, though the U.K. has domestic driving rules and limitations as well that apply in some circumstances.

The EU also introduced Driver Certificate of Competence or CPC training requirements last year that raised the cost of obtaining and keeping an HGV license, and British drivers are required to take CPC training annually, at a cost of about £300 a year, about $450.

But there’s more holding back potential truck drivers than rolls of red tape. Low pay, long hours and time away from home discourage applicants.

Driving a lorry “is not something you aspire to these days,” said Farrall, who has spent his career with his family’s company, founded in 1956. “Young people want to go out and be footballers. That’s who earns the big money.”

The road transport industry in the U.K., like the U.S. trucking industry, needs to work harder to make the driver’s job more attractive, and higher wages are part of the task.

“We’re not going to keep stuff moving if we’re not going to make it a more attractive job,” said Farrall. “The pay doesn’t really reflect the responsibility.”

Eventually, “there will be quite a wake up call on the wage front, but that gets down to customer rates at the end of the day. He said U.K. carriers are considering driver pay surcharges or escalators that function much like fuel surcharges to ensure they get the money needed to keep drivers in truck seats.

However, driver training needs to improve, and customers and the public need to respect drivers for the difficult job they do, Farrall said. That will help change public perception of the job and make driving an HGV a more attractive career for a new generation of recruits.

When Farrall started his career, the drive from Chester to London took seven hours, and the capital seemed much farther away. "It was a day to get down there and get a load back," he said.

"Now the world is so small London is just around the corner really," Farrell said. "For young people, there are more exciting things to go to in Europe. They kids are really aspiring for something more than being a lorry driver stuck in the U.K."

He hopes pay better matched with increased skills and demands, and a dash of public recognition, may start to change that.

Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com and follow him on Twitter: @wbcassidy_joc