The Lorry Driver Shortage

BY JIM WEBSTER

I’ve worked a lot with lorry drivers over the years. Normally we get the good ones, as the other sort don’t make it down the lanes. But at the moment there’s a shortage. Yet I can remember Bob Bojduniak of Farm Brief mentioning to me over twenty years ago that the various agricultural supply companies were telling him then that they struggled to get drivers.

One problem is that apparently their average age is 55 (so still younger than farmers) and more have retired recently. Indeed men of that age can be particularly vulnerable to heart and similar issues, and if you get put on medication, you lose your licence.

It has to be said that Covid hit the number of drivers. The number passing their test fell from 40,000 to 15,000 a year. Hopefully that is something that can be easily remedied.

But what about the cost of the test? The problem is the cost of training. It’s probably going to cost between two and three thousand pounds, which is a lot of money to put out there for somebody who’s not on good money and already has a family to support.

But here we run into another issue. If you’ve just splashed out two grand (meaning your family doesn’t get a holiday this year) the pressure on you to pass increases. But even if you do pass, what’s the money like?

According to Tomasz Oryński, a truck driver and journalist based in Scotland, “In 2010, the median HGV driver in the UK earned 51% more per hour than the median supermarket cashier. By 2020, the premium was only 27%… Why would I want to be a truck driver, with all the responsibility, the long, unpredictable hours, if I can go to Aldi and earn £11.30 an hour stacking shelves?”

A number of years ago a lorry driver I know saw an advert to drive with Eddie Stobart. They had a good image, the drivers all got a uniform. But when this chap applied for the job and they told him the salary, somewhat to their surprise he turned them down. He was on better money just hauling stone in a quarry and delivering it to sites in the local area.

The major retailers have negotiated tight contracts with their suppliers. Part of the cost the supplier has to meet is getting their product to the retailer. So obviously driver wages are among the things that have been driven steadily down as the retailers drive costs out of the system. It’s something we’ve seen in farming where some crops are now only viable if you can get gangs of cheap labour to harvest them. The retailers know what the public are willing to pay. (They’ve access to the data thanks to loyalty cards and similar. Consumers can protest away as much as they want, the computer tells the retailer what consumers do, as opposed to what they say they do.)

This leads to two more issues. The first, the simple one, is how to get more drivers. The second is more difficult, how to get more money into the supply chain, for farmers, drivers and all the others being squeezed.

The driver issue is not as difficult as people seem to think. A lad I know joined the army. In the first six weeks he did his basic training and passed out as a soldier. Then he had six weeks driving and the army put him through a lot of tests. He ended up qualified for everything but petrol tankers.

Rather than trying to get young people into universities where they’ll end up paying through the nose for a qualification that just leaves them in debt, the government could put some of them through their HGV test.

Whilst I recognise the additional advantages of a degree in character formation etc, I would humbly suggest that working as an HGV driver could probably match it with lived experience. It would certainly open the eyes of young people and give them an unparalleled insight into the way the world really works.

Indeed I’d suggest that for a budding poet or novelist it would be a far more useful training than a literature or creative writing qualification. It’s the sort of life where if you keep your eyes open, the stories just keep crawling out. Not only that, but the time spent on your own gives plenty of time for contemplating verse forms.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.