Not enough drivers to transport goods
LONDON – UK energy companies are rationing gasoline supplies and shutting down some pumps – the latest in a series of shortages that have seen McDonald’s take milkshakes off the menu, KFC run out of chicken and gaps appear on supermarket shelves.
A major factor behind the problems is the shortage of truck drivers. The UK is short of tens of thousands of drivers as factors such as Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic converge to create a tight supply chain.
Authorities urged motorists not to panic to buy gasoline after BP and Esso closed a handful of stations because there were not enough trucks to get gasoline to pumps.
“The advice would be to continue as usual,” Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps said on Friday.
The shipping industry is warning things are anything but normal and urging the government to relax immigration rules and recruit more European drivers to avoid turkey and toy shortages over Christmas.
The government is resisting the move and is working to get more Britons into truck driving, long seen as underpaid and underrated work.
“Driving is not seen as a sexy 21st century vocation,” said Laurence Bolton, executive director of the National Driving Center, a family-run school for truck drivers in the London suburb of Croydon.
But that is starting to change. Bolton School has seen a 20% increase in the number of applicants since the easing of pandemic restrictions in the UK this year, with bus drivers, hospitality workers laid off and even former pilots from line seeking to retrain as truck drivers, a profession suddenly in demand and increasingly well paid.
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“It opens up opportunities,” said Stephen Thrower, 31, who works as a van driver but trains on trucks. “It’s more of a lifelong job.”
As an intern practiced knocking over a huge platform between orange cones on the school grounds, Bolton unwound the ingredients that caused a trucking crisis. Britain’s departure from the European Union prompted some European workers to return home. The UK government closed a loophole that many drivers were using to reduce tax payments. Covid-19 lockdowns halted driving tests for months, stopping the flow of new truckers.
Countries like the United States and Germany are also facing a shortage of drivers. But the UK’s problem has been made worse by Brexit. Britain’s total departure from the EU last year ended the rights of bloc citizens to live and work in the UK, making it harder for companies to employ drivers from the UK. Eastern Europe that many relied on.
The pandemic has also disrupted labor markets around the world, putting millions of people out of work at least temporarily. An estimated 1.4 million Europeans left Britain for their home countries during the pandemic, often to be closer to their families. We don’t know how many will come back.
The UK trucking industry is pushing for truck drivers to be added to the “shortage list”, which would make it easier to recruit European drivers. There are similar calls from the UK agriculture and food industries, which are short of fruit pickers and meat packers.
The Conservative government refused, saying British workers should be trained for the jobs.
“We have continuously allowed our home market to underperform by essentially having lower wages to people willing to do the job for less, and sometimes under very poor conditions,” Shapps told lawmakers Wednesday. “And that is the larger picture that we are determined to resolve.”
In an attempt to alleviate the shortage, the government has extended the number of hours drivers can work each week, increased driver testing and streamlined the training process. A change means drivers no longer have to qualify on a rigid truck before upgrading to huge semi-trailers.
Cadhene Lubin-Hewitt, a London bus driver preparing to take his truck driving test, began to think about taking the plunge when he was fired last year due to the pandemic. The news of the truck driver shortage convinced him he was doing the right thing.
The 32-year-old hopes to work for a large supermarket or delivery company, and says he doesn’t worry about loneliness or stress. He finds long-distance driving relaxing, “like going to a spa.”
“I wouldn’t find it boring at all,” he said. “I had just breathed [the music] higher, and walk down the road smiling and singing. “
CONCERN FOR SAFETY
Bolton generally welcomes the measures taken by the government, but is concerned about the safety of letting drivers go directly from cars to 18-wheelers.
“I don’t care if you’re the best car driver in the world – he’s 16 and a half meters (54 feet) long,” he said.
Shapps said the situation is improving “week by week” as more and more new drivers pass their tests. But companies warn the solution won’t be quick or easy.
Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation industry group, said the driver drought was part of a huge upheaval in labor markets and supply chains around the world.
“It’s going to get worse,” Wright said at a recent seminar hosted by the Institute for Government think tank. “We should get used to the fact that sometimes empty shelves… are going to be the new normal.”