Haulage industry forced to train post-Brexit army of homegrown drivers

He is only 25 years of age, but Lewis Judd looks a natural at the wheel of a 40-tonne truck, performing a tricky reversing manoeuvre in the training yard of the East Midlands haulage company where he soon hopes to have a full-time job.

Under the watchful eye of his instructor, Judd successfully backs up the cab of his lorry, bringing tractor and trailer together with an satisfying click. If all goes to plan, in a month’s time he will be driving solo for the Lincolnshire-based company FreshLinc.

“My dad was a lorry driver so it’s probably in the blood,” said Judd, who until a few weeks ago was a window cleaner making £10.50 an hour on a zero-hours contract. He can now expect to earn a steady £30,000 a year after he qualifies, rising to £40,000 if he is prepared to do weekends and overnight trips.

Judd will be joining a new post-Brexit army of homegrown truck drivers that the UK haulage industry has been forced to train since an acute driver shortage closed petrol forecourts and emptied supermarket shelves in 2021.

Two years on from that crisis, industry leaders and logistics trade bodies, report that the crisis has triggered a restructuring of the driver industry leading to higher costs and wage increases of 20 to 30 per cent above pre-pandemic levels, but also a steadier pipeline of younger British drivers.

“I’m not sure it’s exactly a Brexit ‘success story’,” said Lee Juniper, FreshLinc’s boss, who has trained nearly 200 drivers since opening his own on-site driver school 18 months ago. “We’ve solved the problem, but we’ve had to pay through the nose for it.”

Juniper added that despite higher costs the results of the upheaval are not all bad, with the company reducing its reliance on often unreliable temporary agency drivers, leading to easier staff rota management and less damage to his truck fleet as a result of better driving.

Although higher wages for drivers will have added to the pressures on consumer prices, hauliers also faced similar or bigger cost pressures in other areas — repairs, tyres, petrol and the soaring price of the AdBlue exhaust fluid required for diesel engines.

Paul Day, the managing director of Turners Soham, a Cambridgeshire trucking company with 2,500 lorries who has also trained up many of his own drivers having previously relied heavily on drivers from the EU, said driver supply had stabilised — but with side-effects.

“The cost implications of huge pay increases have spilled over into maintenance engineers,” he said, explaining that many mechanics already held HGV licences for moving trucks round the yard, so then went back on the road when wages spiralled in 2021.

“It’s forced up the wages of mechanics so transport costs have increased significantly in the last two years. That’s been hurting the UK economy, but that’s where we are,” Day added.

FreshLinc’s Lee Juniper: ‘I’m not sure it’s exactly a Brexit success story. We’ve solved the problem, but we’ve had to pay through the nose for it’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

The 2021 crisis was triggered by the triple whammy of the economy roaring back into life after pandemic lockdowns just as about 15,000 EU drivers left the UK because of Brexit and Covid, alongside changes to self-employment tax laws that caused some older drivers to quit.

Businesses responded by raising wages, with companies such as FreshLinc and Turners training more of their own drivers. The industry was also aided by government intervention, including a £34mn skills “boot camp” scheme, which was renewed for another year in March. Driving test availability has also improved, with the DVSA conducting an average of 9,500 large goods vehicle driving tests per month, compared with an average of about 6,000 per month in 2019, according to the Department for Transport.

“The government definitely woke up to the problem, and the boot camps and other things have certainly made an impact,” said Rod McKenzie, executive director at the Road Haulage Association, a trade body.

With HGV training costing between £3,500-£5,000 per driver, the skills boot camp programme has been valuable in encouraging young people into the trade, according to James Clifford, chief executive of HGVC, a training provider that has delivered some of the scheme.

Boot camp funds are also available for businesses to partially subsidise their own in-house training, Clifford said, encouraging companies that were previously reluctant to invest in training because they feared new drivers would just be poached by rivals.

Although the RHA and Logistics UK, the trade lobby, say there remains a theoretical shortfall of 50,000 lorry drivers in the UK, the existing driver pool has stabilised at about 275,000, which is sufficient to meet current needs.

This is partly because the haulage industry is no longer racing to keep up with demand. In the UK, as elsewhere, consumers are buying less as inflation bites.

Tighter supply chains have also caused many retailers to rationalise the number of product lines they are displaying, reducing shipping needs, according to Kieran Smith, chief executive of Driver Require, a recruitment agency.

Day at Turners of Soham estimated that volumes were down by 6 to 8 per cent this year, while Logistics UK found that 64 per cent of its members reported they had reduced their fleet size when renewing their memberships this year. Day predicted 2023 would be a “tough year” for the sector.

Truck driver wage rises and job vacancies have also softened markedly, according to Jack Kennedy, economist at Indeed, the recruitment website. Job postings for HGV drivers peaked at 80 per cent above pre-pandemic levels in 2021, but were now 34 per cent below this pre-pandemic baseline.

Looking to the future, the industry has mixed views about how resilient it will be when demand picks again, but few expect a repeat of the 2021 crisis.

Industry leaders say they still face medium-term vulnerabilities due to unsociable hours and inadequate roadside facilities putting off recruits, as well as Brexit, which has removed access to a flexible pool of EU drivers that previously provided a buffer at peak periods, such as Christmas.

“The industry is certainly not bulletproof. There’s still a significant shortage of drivers in the UK,” said James Russell, the managing director of A.F. Blakemore & Son wholesale distributors, which has also invested heavily in training. “If there was some sort of renewed pressure less well-prepared parts of the industry could still come under strain pretty quickly.”

But Day said a full-blown crisis was unlikely, partly because recent experience had taught big companies that they needed to be more flexible in their demands.

“If demand came back by 6-8 per cent suddenly, then we’d be squeezed again and drivers would be scarce,” he said. “But we can probably cope with that upsurge in demand if it only comes through the economic cycle.”

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