Understanding the UK HGV driver shortage

07 October 2021
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There has been a lorry driver shortage in the UK since at least 2018, but a combination of issues has ushered in a shortage like no other. Before the pandemic, supply chains were stretched, but in 2021 they’re almost at breaking point. Requiring an estimated 100,000 HGV drivers to make haulage as efficient as it can be, the Road Haulier’s Association predicts it could take 18 months to train the necessary drivers.

We look back at a tumultuous two years and the UK government’s proposed solutions to remedy the situation.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic

Virtually no industry across the globe escaped from the COVID-19 pandemic unscathed. Some were able to adapt by rapidly digitalising and working from home, while others were able to rely on government support. Unfortunately, some industries saw a decline in business, while others saw unexpected boosts that continued to grow more than a year on from the first lockdown.

Working tirelessly throughout lockdowns, the haulage industry has seen massive shifts in priority and demands. We take a look at some of the reasons why 2020 was a year unlike any other for fleet services, how the ripples are still being felt today, and what we expect the future will bring for the UK haulage industry.

Fortunately for workers within the industry, haulage was recognised as a critical service, allowing some logistic teams and drivers to continue working as Key Workers. However, while hauliers of home deliveries, PPE supplies and supermarket stock were swept off their feet, drivers who delivered to restaurants, pubs and service providers were left to their own devices from a lack of work.

Splitting the haulage industry in half in terms of demand has led to a strong contrast between drivers. Surveys conducted by the FTA and RHA show that at one point, roughly half of the UK’s truck fleet were left parked up, whilst in May 2020, 69% of hauliers had furloughed staff during the lockdown.

Haulage agency Driver Require has predicted employment numbers will rise to pre-pandemic levels by mid-2025. With a few years to go until haulage can recover, the industry has a fair share of short to mid-term challenges to overcome in the meantime.

Increases in online shopping demand for couriers

In early March, the number of Britons working from home or stuck indoors under furlough rose to levels previously unheard of, and with it came a deluge of online orders. In turn, the demand for deliveries required a similar need for fleet services. This requirement was made all the more complex by strict but necessary social distancing regulations.

With shoppers today still erring on the side of caution and finding home deliveries more convenient and practical, whether it’s a lack of queues or 24/7 availability, the demand for online distribution is still expected to continue beyond the pandemic with a further 8,700 high street stores closing in the first half of 2021

For retail companies, there’s a growing demand for reliable multi-drop delivery drivers and hauliers. At the same time, warehouse operators can expect to see the knock-on effects of online shopping with an increase in home deliveries but a drop in bulk business deliveries.

With the growing expectation amongst customers for 24 or 48-hour deliveries comes a rise in pressure for both retailers and delivery companies, requiring both to streamline and improve the efficiency of their day to day operations adding further complications to the process.

HGV Driver shortages and Brexit

Alongside the travel restrictions implemented due to Covid-19, which encouraged many foreign-born drivers to return to their families, the effects of Brexit have exacerbated the UK’s lorry driver shortage. With an estimated 60,000 of the HGV drivers in the UK coming from EU member states, Brexit and all the complications and uncertainty surrounding it has forced many EU drivers to explore life outside of the UK, with many expected not to return. Compounding this issue was that under a new points-based immigration system, haulage drivers were not defined as skilled workers, preventing businesses from hiring EU or non-EU based HGV drivers.

The driver shortage has become a very high-profile issue as consumers are seeing the direct impact through empty shelves at the supermarket. The fuel panic buying in October 2021 highlighted the situation further, with initially only a handful of forecourts experiencing issues due to a shortage of tanker drivers. The resulting panic led up to 90% of fuel courts experiencing a scarcity of at least one fuel type. This came after media attention regarding the issues at the handful of forecourts, sparking an increase in demand that deliveries could not keep up with.

Sourcing solutions

These problems (and how they’ve affected fleet services) have prompted many to call on the government to initiate a quick fix.

In an attempt to counteract the problems and the knock-on effects that are passed down to suppliers, the UK government penned an open letter to the logistics sector outlining the measures to be implemented that should make becoming an HGV driver easier. These included streamlining the application and testing process, removing certain requirements and increasing training capacity through the use of MOD examiners.

In addition to changes in training, the government plans to grant 5,000 visas to HGV drivers. These visas were initially due to expire in December 2021, but this has already been extended to February 2022 following criticism that the time span was too short to appeal to drivers.

Whether these solutions ease the problems hauliers are experiencing as much as the UK government hopes is another question. In the meantime, Supermarkets and other HGV employers are finding they must rely on immediate incentives of their own, with many offering joining bonuses for all new employees.

Whilst it is hoped that the combination of financial incentives and government-backed schemes can bring an end to the HGV driver shortage, it has become clear that the impact on businesses and consumers will remain for several months.