The real scale of the HGV driver shortage and what can be done about it?

The real scale of the HGV driver shortage and what can be done about it?

The UK is currently experiencing an HGV driver shortage that is resulting in supply problems for a wide range of goods across many sectors. This has become most apparent in relation to fuel supply difficulties to petrol stations in September 2021 that, following media attention, led to panic buying among the public which resulted in traffic, economic and social impacts.

It has been argued that these current difficulties are mainly due to the recent convergence of several different recent issues. First, the Covid-19 pandemic which has resulted in some HGV drivers having to self-isolate and delays in driving tests for new entrants. Second, Brexit which has led to some non-UK drivers returning to their home countries. And third, the recently introduced tax changes known as IR35 that have resulted in some drivers registered as self-employed having to pay more tax and hence the possibility of some choosing to stop working in the industry.

The scale of HGV driver shortage

Department for Transport data shows that 16,022 practical HGV driving tests were passed in Britain in 2020/21 compared to 41,434 in 2019/20, a reduction of approximately 25,000 passes year-on-year (Department for Transport, 2021a). ONS Annual Population Survey data shows that there were approximately 300,000 people working in the UK who recorded their main occupation as HGV driving in 2019/20 (i.e. in the run up to the UK leaving the EU on 31 January 2020), 16% of whom were from EU or other non-UK countries. This ONS data indicates that there were 27,000 non-UK (EU and other) drivers working in the UK in 2020/21 compared with 47,000 in the previous year, a reduction of 20,000 drivers. Therefore, the combination of fewer driving tests and the reduction in non-UK HGV drivers implies a reduction in the HGV driver capacity in the UK of approximately 45,000 drivers between 2019/20 and 2020/21.

An array of factors account for the longer-term shortage of HGV drivers. These include rates of pay; working conditions; suitability of facilities for rest breaks and overnight stops when driving and their pricing; unappealing working hours especially for those with family and caring commitments; concerns about health and wellbeing as a driver; the time and cost involved in driver training and testing; high insurance costs for the newly qualified and the related reluctance by companies to employ those without experience; obtaining work via agencies that can result in work uncertainty and lack of advance warning of jobs; effort and investment levels in training, apprenticeships and careers advice for potential recruits; falling rates of motor vehicle driving among the young; the image of the industry; and the respect afforded to  HGV drivers from those they work for and the general public.

Actions to mitigate HGV driver shortage – are temporary visas the solution?

Action that companies can take to address their immediate shortages include offering HGV drivers better rates of pay and conditions that reflect the skill and training required, as well as supporting the training costs of prospective drivers. Some companies have recently announced financial incentives to work for them or higher pay rates.

In July 2021, the UK Government introduced temporary measures in an effort to ease the impact of driver shortages including relaxing drivers’ hours regulations so that drivers could work longer than normally permitted, prioritising and maximising HGV driver testing, increased support for apprenticeships and increasing communications to jobseekers to become HGV drivers. Industry trade associations had also called for the introduction of temporary visas for non-UK drivers but the Government declined, arguing that British people voted against such actions in the Brexit referendum, and that the industry should invest in the UK workforce rather than relying on labour from abroad.

The onset of panic buying of fuel at petrol stations and its related traffic impacts in September 2021 forced the Government to announce further measures to address HGV driver shortages. This included making 5,000 temporary visas available for non-UK drivers until Christmas, as well as support for 4,000 people to receive driver training, further increases in HGV driver testing, writing to the almost one million UK holders of HGV driving licences to try to encourage them back into the industry. This was followed within 48 hours with placing army road tanker drivers on standby, temporarily extending tanker driver ADR licences that were approaching expiry, and temporarily exempting the fuel industry from the Competition Act 1998 for the purpose of sharing information and optimising supply to petrol stations.

The level of impact of this combination of Government and industry measures taken in response to the HGV driver shortage remains to be seen and several of the Government actions will take some time to take effect. Therefore, only time will tell if those holding HGV licences but not currently using them, prospective entrants to the industry (including the young, women and those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups), and the existing driver workforce view these actions as adequate.

If the above actions fail to achieve the necessary improvement in driver retention and recruitment rates required for sufficient driver availability to meet the freight transport needs of the country, it could lead to a more fundamental reorganisation of supply chains. This could involve stockholding levels having to increase, with less reliance placed on frequent, so-called ‘just-in-time’ deliveries of goods by HGV. Such an outcome would also be likely to result in longer-term pressure on vehicle technologists and Government to increase the rate of development and introduction of fully autonomous HGVs. However, the availability and approval of such vehicles remains some years away.

Further combined action by industry and Government to address the issue of insurance costs for newly qualified HGV drivers and improve working conditions also remain a priority. This especially includes the availability of locations for drivers to take rest breaks and overnight stops equipped with suitable washing, catering and security facilities and at a reasonable price. The industry and Government should also work together on the positive promotion of HGV driving and the wider industry to both increase the driver workforce and reinforce to the general public the important contribution made by freight transport and logistics to the vitality of the UK economy and the wellbeing of society.

Note

A briefing report is available that further investigates the current and longer-term HGV driver shortage in the UK and the composition of the driver workforce. It considers the potential longer-term causes that have led to driver recruitment and retention problems, and summarises the actions now being taken by the industry and UK Government to address it. It is available at (SRF-HGV-Driver-Shortage-Draft-Report-30-09-2021.pdf (csrf.ac.uk)).

This summary and the briefing report have been produced as part of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight (SRF – EPSRC grant number EP/R035148/1). Further details about the SRF project are available at: http://www.csrf.ac.uk/