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The UK’s continuing economic anaemia has forced the road transport industry to cut its cloth in a bid to stay in business. Profits have in many cases come under unsustainable pressure as fuel prices surge, forcing operators to the wall. The current situation has also served to mask a looming driver shortage, according to Skills for Logistics (SfL).

This, the sector skills council warns, presents a very real threat to operators’ ability to bounce back when the eventual upswing comes. If allowed to go unaddressed it will rob road transport of one of its most vital resources, drivers, in years to come holding back both the sector and wider economy (60% of goods in Britain are moved by road).

SfL’s comprehensive report A Looming Driver Shortage? reveals there has been a 31% decline in LGV tests passed (C, C+E, C1, C1+E) in the past four years, with the 2010-11 total standing at 22,700, according to DfT data. It also underlines that not all of these licence holders are even becoming professional drivers: just over 12,000 people went through the Initial Driver CPC and applied for the mandatory (for all new drivers) Driver Qualification Card.

As SfL director Ross Moloney points out "the driver shortage is not new but its effects are mitigated by the economic downturn".

"As the UK economy recovers, resolving this issue will be critical to avoid holding up growth," he adds.

This in isolation might be a manageable situation – there are after all fewer LGVs on the road, with a vehicle park of around 389,000 down from 2007’s peak of more than half a million due to consolidation and business failures – if not for the Driver CPC.

With more than a quarter of LGV drivers aged 60 or above, and just 1% under 25, drivers retiring in the next five years this will leave a demand for 48,000 drivers (from a pool of 299,000 professional LGV licence holders driving professionally). SfL also estimates that there is a shortfall of 2.7 million Driver CPC training hours, suggesting many older drivers do not intend to continue working past the September 2014 CPC grandfather right’s deadline. This will remove a large chunk of the part-time or semi-retired workers currently meeting the sector’s manpower needs.

As Andrew Waldron told MT in May: "I think a lot of the low-hanging fruit has gone in terms of maximising the fleet [which has helped mask the driver shortage]. I worry that in 2014, when many drivers will leave the industry, there could be the perfect storm."

Cost is also thought to be another factor. There are few jobs that demand would-be drivers put their hands in their pockets to the tune of approximately £1,500 to get a new licence to earn an average weekly wage that in 2010 stood at £430 (according to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings by the Office for National Statistics). This is below the national average despite the fact that most drivers work on average a greater number of hours a week than the typical UK worker.

Nevertheless, recent official data from JobCentre Plus shows that in October of last year for every driver seeking a job there were six positions being advertised. The most recent data shows this has eased, and for every three positions there are two drivers seeking a job.

Keeping the wheels turning

Apprenticeships have been sold as a panacea for many of the UK skills-related ills by governments of various hues for more years than anyone continues to remember. While the Driving Goods Vehicle (DGV) apprenticeship sounds like just what the doctor ordered, it’s been hamstrung from the start at Robin Brown, chief executive of System Training explained to prime minister David Cameron on a visit to the training provider’s Carlisle base in May.

During Cameron's visit, Brown outlined the major barrier to the take-up of the apprenticeship (low compared to apprenticeships in other sectors): namely full-funding is available to those aged 16 to 18 years old, with only part funding available for those aged 19 to 24. Of course a provisional LGV licence cannot be attained until a driver is 18 and in an industry where money is so tight "who is going to sign up for that", says Brown, "it’s a tiny window, and has been an issue."

While Brown doesn’t advocate the reintroduction of a sector wide training levy, he views the DGV apprenticeship as a lame duck unless the funding mechanism is changed. "We’re not asking for more money," says Brown, "just action to smooth the way."

His words weren’t wasted, and the prime minister has subsequently charged John Hayes, minister for further education at BIS, with resolving the issue. A meeting with System Training and other industry partners is now on the cards, and Brown intends to raise the issue with transport minister Mike Penning during a scheduled meeting in July.

While the apprenticeship route is a specific tool to bring new drivers into the industry, driving and the broader logistics industry has limited reach amongst those about to enter the job market.

To this end Southampton’s Meachers Global Logistics is one a band of operators that has decided to take the matter into its own hands. The company has been working with students who are taking their BTEC Business First Diploma at the local City College, to introduce the world of logistics to them and demonstrate that a driving, warehouse or management role can become a fully fledged career. The company, which plans to repeat the exercise, engaged the students by setting them the challenge of completing a tender that needed to be submitted in writing, before being pitched to members of Meacher’s management.


Gary Whittle, commercial director at Meachers, says: "We have enjoyed working with the students at City College and have been impressed with their enthusiasm and interest in our business; it is a growing challenge to encourage new talent into the industry.

"Work experience and partnering with education provides a great opportunity for young people to understand that our business is far more than just moving and storing boxes."

While Brown agrees that Driver CPC will mean a lot of existing part-timers decide they can’t be bothered to continue and turn their backs on the industry instead, he ultimately sees it as a good thing, part of improving the perception of a career as a driver, which is after all solely needed. "Clever businesses are applying the required training to improve their operations," says Brown. He name checks Hoyer, Asda and Yodel as firms doing it right. "It’s here for good, so clever businesses are using it to plan incremental improvements over the next ten years," he says.

Certainly firms want to avoid teaching their drivers how to suck eggs, but training delivered well always has a value, especially in an industry that’s never been famed for its commitment to development. Given the scale of the challenge ahead, a positive sell from employers has surely never been more important if a new generation of drivers is to fuel a resurgent sector. "If we ignore this and think it’s okay, we’ll have to live with the consequences. I’m certain that’s not something we want to do," says Brown.

  • Getting good drivers into your business is not a challenge unique to the UK. In fact, according to recruiter Manpower 23 out of 36 countries rank recruiting drivers amongst their top ten most difficult roles to fill. According to Manpower while finding UK LGV drivers ranked 5th in 2006 amongst the top-ten most difficult vacancies to fill, the recession eased the situation (although drivers still made the top ten in 2008 before slipping out of it in the horrific business year that was 2009). By 2010 finding drivers was a major headache once again, shooting back up to the number four spot in the hard to fill vacancies list. Given this situation and the threats outlined in the main article, SfL makes the very valid point that when supply outstrips demand prices tend to go up, or in this case operators face the very real risk of driver wage inflation starting to mirror the vertical route fuel duty has taken in recent years.