Brexit forces UK haulage industry to train army of local drivers

Lewis Judd, who is 25 years old, looks like a natural behind the wheel of a truck that weighs 40 tonnes, performing an intricate reversing maneuver in the East Midlands haulage yard where he hopes to get a job soon.

Judd backs his lorry successfully under the supervision of his instructor. The tractor and trailer are brought together with a satisfying “click”. If everything goes according to plan, he should be driving alone for FreshLinc in Lincolnshire within a month.

Judd said, “My father was a truck driver so I think it’s in my blood.” Judd was working as a window washer on a zero hours contract until a few months ago. After he has qualified, he can expect to earn £30,000 per year. This could rise to £40,000 for those who are willing to work weekends and overnight.

Judd is joining the new Brexit Army of Homegrown Truck Drivers that UK haulage has been forced to develop since a severe driver shortage shut down petrol forecourts in 2021 and emptied grocery shelves.

After two years, leaders in the industry and trade associations for logistics report that this crisis triggered a restructuring within the driver industry, resulting in higher costs and wage hikes of 20-30% above the pre-pandemic level, but also an increased pipeline of younger British Drivers.

“I don’t think it’s a Brexit success story,” said Lee Juniper. Juniper is the boss of FreshLinc, and has trained over 200 drivers in his on-site driving school since it opened 18 months ago. “We’ve fixed the problem but had to pay a lot for it.”Juniper said that the costs of the change were not as bad as they seemed, because the company was able to reduce its dependence on temporary agency drivers who are often unreliable. This led to easier management of staff rotas and less damage being done to the truck fleet due to better driving.

The cost of repairs, tyres and petrol, as well as the rising price of AdBlue exhaust fluid for diesel engines, was also a major factor in the rise in consumer prices.

Paul Day, managing director of Turners Soham in Cambridgeshire, which has 2,500 trucks and trains many of its own drivers, after relying heavily on EU drivers, said that the driver supply was stabilised, but there were some side effects.

He said that the cost implications of the huge increases in pay have spread to maintenance engineers. Many mechanics who already had HGV licenses, which they used for moving trucks around the yard, went back out on the road as wages soared by 2021.

It’s caused the wages of mechanics to rise, so transport costs have increased dramatically in the last two year. Day said that the UK economy has been affected by this, but it is where we are.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.

Companies such as FreshLinc, Turners and others responded by increasing wages. Government intervention was also helpful to the industry, with a PS34mn “boot camp” skills scheme that was renewed in March for another year. The availability of driving tests has also increased, with the DVSA now conducting an average 9,500 large goods vehicles per month. This compares to an average of 6,000 per monthly in 2019, according the Department for Transport.

Rod McKenzie is the executive director of the Road Haulage Association.

The skills boot camp program has helped to encourage young people into the industry, says James Clifford. He is the chief executive of HGVC a training provider who has implemented some of the programme.

Clifford added that boot camp funds can be used by businesses to partially fund their own internal training. This will encourage companies who were reluctant to invest because they worried about rivals poaching new drivers.

The RHA and Logistics UK (the trade lobby) claim that there is still a theoretical shortage of 50,000 truck drivers in the UK. However, the driver pool currently stands at around 275,000 which is enough to meet the current requirements.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.

According to Kieran Smit, the chief executive officer of Driver Require a recruitment agency, tighter supply chains also forced many retailers to reduce the number of products they display, reducing their shipping requirements.

Day, at Turners of Soham, estimated that this year’s volumes were down 6 to 8%. Meanwhile, Logistics UK discovered that 64% of its members had reported that they reduced the size of their fleet when renewing memberships in this year. Day predicted that 2023 will be a tough year for the sector.

According to Jack Kennedy, an economist for Indeed, a recruitment website, both truck driver wages and job openings have also dipped significantly. In 2021, the number of HGV driver job postings peaked at 80% above pre-pandemic level. They are now 34% below that baseline.

The industry is divided on how resilient they will be in the event that demand increases again. However, few are expecting a repeat crisis of 2021.

The industry leaders claim that they are still vulnerable to medium-term threats due to the unsociable working hours and insufficient roadside facilities, which discourage recruits. They also cite Brexit, because it has eliminated access to flexible EU drivers who previously acted as a buffer during peak periods such as Christmas.

The industry is not bulletproof. James Russell, managing director of A.F., said that there is still a shortage of drivers across the UK. Blakemore & Son, a wholesale distributor that has invested heavily in the training of its employees, is another company to have done so. “If there were some kind of renewed pressure, less prepared parts of the industry would still be under stress pretty quickly.”

Day said that a full-blown financial crisis is unlikely. This was partly because the recent past had shown big companies they need to be more flexible with their demands.

He said, “If demand suddenly returned by 6-8 percent, we would be squeezed and drivers would be scarce.” “But if the demand surge is only due to an economic cycle, we could probably handle it.”