The run-up to Christmas always poses serious challenges for operators, often stretching resources to breaking point, writes Simon Jack.

But this year the competition to find drivers has become even more intense as the overall shortage within the industry bites, forcing companies to offer much increased rates to attract the staff they need.

The requirement for extra drivers now lasts over a longer period than in the past, says David Coombes, pictured, MD of Skills for Logistics which owns the Logistics Job Shop recruitment consultancy.

David Coombes

“From Black Friday onwards there is strong demand for drivers of vans up to large goods vehicles and that will last until mid-January,” he says.

Mark Underwood, MD of Staffline Group, which owns the Driving Plus driver recruitment agency, says that market conditions are altering the way that supermarkets, major non-food retailers and 3PLs view pay.

“It is now just accepted that they will have to pay more during peak periods and a different rate off-peak,” he says.

Peak rates depend on the region but usually involve adding £1 to £2 per hour on top of the usual rate of around £11 to £12.

However, as well as paying more, companies need to offer good working conditions and a professional operating environment.

There is also a greater awareness of collaboration among major firms who can share the same pool of drivers to meet a series of spikes in sales which can affect companies differently. These start with Black Friday and Cyber Monday, followed by deliveries of non-perishable items and then finally fresh food.

“The solution isn’t just higher pay, it’s about understanding the challenges,” Underwood says.

Decisive action

This year some companies have taken decisive action to secure staff and are guaranteeing the amount of work on offer, says Matt Draper, national officer for road transport and logistics at Unite.

“They are hedging their bets by taking on drivers slightly earlier than usual and offering short-term contracts to cover the peak period – in effect, they are doing their Christmas shopping early,” he says.

Higher rates are being offered by agencies but some employers are also offering bonuses if people work continuously for an agreed period.

This forms part of an upwards pressure on overall wage rates which Draper says has already resulted in higher pay and better sick pay, holidays and working conditions. “Sometimes rises are being brought forward to avoid the danger of people voting with their feet,” he says.


Many believe these pressures will be maintained throughout next year, as the driver shortage worsens – recent figures published by the FTA suggest that there is now a national shortfall of 52,000 drivers.

Nick Gordon, CEO of HGV recruitment and training firm trg Logistics says that the situation has been exacerbated by many Eastern European drivers returning to their home countries.

“Many went home for six weeks in the summer and never came back or went to countries such as Germany,” he says.

Mark Richmond, MD of south Wales-based national haulier Rhys Davies, adds: “Availability is tight and the position has deteriorated when compared to last year. In our opinion Brexit has certainly seen the driver pool shrink as the drop in the value of the pound in turn devalued the benefits for continental Europeans of working in the UK.”

Mick Skerrett, national driver development manager at Manpower UK, agrees that the driver shortage is showing no sign of easing up, leading to a sharp spike in some pay rates.

“Many businesses have been reviewing their offer throughout the year and increasingly we are seeing a salary increase of between 10% and 20% for in-demand skills and sectors,” he says.

Increases here to stay

In addition, companies that increased wages for agency workers to cover the peak might find it difficult to return to pre-Christmas rates. “The increases will be here to stay,” Skerrett believes.

As well as the shortage of drivers, the advent of the National Living Wage has had a knock-on effect on HGV driver rates. Many now expect differentials between themselves and lower paid workers, for example in warehouses, to be maintained.

trg Logistics’ Nick Gordon says: “We have never seen wage growth like it. Some companies have brought in two or three increases this year. We will see further rises in 2019. Wages of £12 to £13 per hour could become £15 to £16.”

As well as the shortage of HGV drivers, the rise in online shopping has created particularly difficult conditions for parcels carriers with employed and self-employed last-mile drivers in great demand.


Manpower’s Mick Skerrett says: “London and the South West are particular hotspots – but there’s been a general increase across the country.”

Skills for Logistics’ David Coombes says that demand for van drivers has increased by 5% to 10% since last year.

“Parcels carriers are struggling to keep up with demand. This Christmas we will see parcel orders being delivered late and sometimes not at all because there just aren’t enough van drivers,” he predicts.

trg Logistics’ Nick Gordon adds: “There is going to be a massive shortage of van drivers in the run-up to Christmas. We have heard of parcels firms paying bonuses and putting people up in hotels to ensure availability. Parcels firms are being overwhelmed with the volume and will have to run late.”

Permanent solution

To overcome the challenges, some parcels companies which are experiencing growth are able to offer long-term rather than temporary employment when they recruit for Christmas.

For example, a DPD spokesman says: “As our parcels volumes are growing year-on-year, we tend to recruit new permanent drivers in the build-up to peak. They are then in place for next year to give us the capacity we need going forward.”

The company begins planning for the peak in January and this year had a record 10,000 delivery drivers out on the road on Black Friday.

Although companies can use innovative methods to overcome any shortages it does not affect the underlying staffing problem in the transport sector – and a fault-line that becomes even more evident during periods of high volume.

Good planning the only way to avoid poor performance

Retailers face huge logistical challenges in the run-up to Christmas and often the only solution is to plan well ahead. This is the case with toy retailer The Entertainer which works closely with its 3PL, XPO Logistics, as logistics director Steve Williams explains.

The Entertainer

“They have resources enough to satisfy our needs. However, in order for that to be achieved we are planning and even ‘booking’ drivers as early as February for the coming peaks,” he says.

He adds: “The situation with temporary workers in general is now a very serious one for the logistics industry. A lot of companies are struggling for warehouse and driver temp staff in the peak weeks of the year and this year has not improved on last.”

Pets at Home

Pets at Home has two peaks in activity, one when Christmas-themed products are sent out to the shops in October and one just before Christmas when customers tend to stock up on pet food.

In order to increase retention during this period, temporary drivers are guaranteed work for the entire period at its sites in Stoke-on-Trent and Northampton – two thirds of its fleet is own account with Downton, TP Niven and DFDS providing the rest of the distribution.

Around 12 to 15 drivers – who must also be qualified to use forklift trucks to make store deliveries – are recruited using local agencies with whom it has long-standing relationships.

There has been some effect from reducing numbers of European drivers but this has affected its warehouses more, particularly Northampton, where over half the workforce are non-UK nationals.

Director of logistics and distribution Terry Siddle says: “It’s not a flood of people going back, it’s more that there are less coming in, reducing the future supply.”