Classifying HGV drivers as ‘low skilled’ and refusing potential applicants from getting visas could cause the industry to grind to a halt, business groups have warned.

The government this week unveiled its plan to move away from the UK’s reliance on “cheap labour” from Europe and instead “encourage people with the right talent.”

The proposals include expanding the definition of skilled workers to those educated to A-level/Scottish Highers equivalent standard.

A points-based system would also be introduced, with overseas citizens having to reach 70 points before being allowed to work in the UK.

But the FTA said it was “appalled” that the government had deemed HGV driving, along with other logistics occupations, as low skilled activities and urged it to reconsider: “The UK economy simply cannot operate without the logistics workforce,” said Sally Gilson, FTA head of skills policy.

“The sector is already facing a severe labour shortage – 64% of transport and storage businesses are now struggling to fill vacancies – and with EU workers currently constituting 13% of the entire logistics workforce, it is obvious how detrimental this policy will be on the very businesses charged with keeping the UK trading.”

Nigel Cook, MD at Consett-based Elddis Transport, said he was concerned the plans would “extenuate the current driver shortage further” and increase wage inflation: “The number of drivers from abroad is more prevalent the further south you travel in the UK, but UK drivers may choose to migrate if wages are pushed up through further driver shortages in areas such as the South East or Midlands,” Cook said.

“Unfortunately successive governments have not done anything to address the problem through making funding more accessible for employees and employers to gain vocational licenses.”

Iain Mitchell, MD at John Mitchell Haulage & Warehousing said 8% of its driver workforce were from abroad: “This will affect us as we do rely on EU drivers,” he said.

“I am absolutely not in favour of this proposal.”

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Also responding to the plans, the RHA demanded more detail on the basis of ‘skilled’ work.

"The Association is extremely concerned that the ability to drive a heavy goods vehicle is not considered to be a skill," chief executive Richard Burnett said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Profit margins are so low, between one and two percent, that employers simply cannot afford to train new drivers. They need to employ those that are already qualified but with a 60,000 shortfall this is impossible.

“Since its inception in 2017, hauliers have invested £320m into the Apprenticeship Levy yet only £20m has been withdrawn. It’s just not working. It’s a tax on our industry.

“For years we have been talking to the Home Office about getting the HGV driver skills shortage added to the UK Shortage Occupation list that includes all of the occupations that currently have a skills deficit.

“With a shortfall of approximately 60,000 drivers, we are of the firm opinion that this industry should certainly be near, if not top of the list.

“It’s a triple whammy,” he continued. “We’re not getting the money to train new drivers, the driver shortage isn’t recognised and now we’re being told that operators can’t employ immigrants to fill staff rotas.

“Many UK operators are totally reliant on European drivers. Putting a stop to the immigrant workforce will have a massive impact on the supply chain, and the next-day deliveries we have all come to expect will be a thing of the past.

“There is a clear lack of communication between Government departments i.e. the Home Office and the Department for Education. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing and urgent reform is desperately needed for the Apprenticeship Levy. Otherwise all pipelines for recruitment will dry up.

“Ninety-five percent of all goods in the UK have made the journey to their ultimate destination on the back of a truck and the UK economy is totally reliant on an efficient supply chain network. It cannot be allowed to grind to a halt as a result of government short-sightedness.”

Speaking to BBC Radio Suffolk, Rod McKenzie, RHA director of policy and public affairs, said that around 60% of HGV drivers on the roads are from the EU and many work for UK companies: “It’s a job that lots of Brits don’t want to do,” he explained.

“The government might describe them as low skilled, I wouldn’t, but if we cut off that key channel of employment we could end up not getting the stuff we need in our homes and offices.”