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Wheels of change: addressing the haulage industry’s recruitment crisis

Businesses are concerned about the drop in the number of available HGV drivers and the impact on supply chains, but the haulage industry is fighting back.

Last updated: 14 Sep 2021 6 min read

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  • The recruitment problem in the haulage industry has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the departure of qualified EU nationals following Brexit
  • The Department for Transport has issued a set of actions to boost HGV driver numbers including greater testing capacity and improvements to facilities for staff
  • Businesses within the logistics industry are also offering “golden handshake” incentives and training programmes to attract new drivers

The shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers has grabbed headlines of late, but the issue has been around for a number of years and has become a more pressing concern since the UK’s vote to leave the EU in 2016.

But Brexit hasn’t been the only challenge: a range of factors are at play, including an ageing workforce (the average age of HGV drivers is now 53) and the price of obtaining the mandatory Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC). Indeed, the recruitment crisis was first highlighted in a 2016 report from the government’s Transport Select Committee, which stated the road haulage industry would have to hire an extra 1.2m staff by 2022 as an estimated 35,000 drivers retire each year, with only 17,000 thought to start out in the industry annually.

The driver shortage issue has been complicated further by the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant economic uncertainty and disruption to supply chains. Figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) suggest the volume of new HGVs registered in the UK during the first half of 2021 was less than 20,000 units, down 28.8% compared to figures from 2019. Think tank Driver Require says its “most likely scenario” is that about 22,000 drivers have left the industry since the start of the pandemic.

Boosting the industry’s appeal to jobseekers

However, the logistics sector is making moves to bolster the number of qualified drivers behind the wheel.

In the short term, some have focused on attracting EU nationals back to the UK. Logistics UK, for instance, has urged the government to replicate its Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme for the logistics sector and prioritise giving 10,000 temporary work visas to EU drivers. It estimates only 600 of the 14,000 EU national drivers who left the UK in the first half of 2020 have returned.

The long, antisocial and often unpredictable hours on the road also need to be managed in order to attract new entrants to the industry.

“Companies need to do more to make shifts predictable,” says Jenny Tipping, an HGV Instructor at Wayside Transport in Wimbourne, Dorset. “What is not convenient is when shifts are unpredictable and you never know when you will finish. If a driver arrives at a site and has to wait two hours, that’s not fair and is often a cause of drivers getting fed up and leaving the industry.”

“Companies need to be prepared to train staff so they have the skills needed for that particular job. Mentoring programmes cost money, but they’re a way to demystify the job and provide clear paths to getting on in the industry” Jenny Tipping, HGV Instructor, Wayside Transport

Working conditions for drivers can also be poor, with a lack of adequate truck-stop facilities for those taking statutory break and rest periods while on the road. At some delivery sites, drivers are not always allowed to use the canteen or toilets, despite the law stating they must be given access. The Road Haulage Association is one of several organisations that has maintained pressure on the issue. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, the Health and Safety Executive, together with the Department for Transport, wrote a letter reminding businesses that make or receive deliveries to ensure truckers have easy and safe access to toilets and handwashing facilities.

Offering cash incentives

According to Driver Require, the average cost of an HGV test pass is £3,000, which is another disincentive to new recruits. It’s understandable, then, that many businesses are offering “golden handshake” incentives to new drivers in the form of ready cash. In August 2021, Hampshire-based fresh produce delivery firm Gist joined Tesco in offering new recruits an enhanced benefits package, including a £2,000 sign-on bonus and additional retention rewards, valued at £5,000.

Aside from cash incentives, firms are keen to recruit new drivers by absorbing the cost of training, qualifications and insurance. Many offer training schemes and initiatives, such as the Warehouse to Wheels programme, which supports warehouse employees in gaining their HGV licence.

“Companies need to be prepared to train staff so they have the skills needed for that particular job,” says Tipping. “Warehouse to Wheels schemes and mentoring programmes all cost money, but they’re a way to demystify the job and provide clear paths to getting on in the industry.”

Elsewhere, SMEs such as Longs of Leeds have their own programmes to give young drivers a leg-up. “We have an extensive driving assessment and training programme, where we can spend more time assessing young drivers and give them experience by having them work alongside existing driver assessors for a number of weeks before being out on their own,” says its Director, Andrew Long. “We work closely with our insurers and get their clearance to take on younger drivers if we need to.”

More government support

When the Transport Select Committee examined HGV driver shortages in 2016, it heard that the industry faced public perceptions that needed to change.

One was making it clear that driving is a job that can offer career progression. Adrian Jones, National Officer for Road Transport and Logistics at Unite, the UK’s biggest trade union, told the committee: “There are opportunities in companies to offer more advanced training for drivers and to look at diversifying into other things

“Not all hauliers have the opportunity, but there are specialist jobs out there in oil distribution and petrol tankers, for example, whether it be in low loaders, heavy haulage or car distribution. There are specialisms that create new challenges for drivers.”

Owing to the impact of pandemic, the acute problem of HGV driver supply prompted the Departments for Transport, Work and Pensions, and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to issue a joint letter to the logistics sector in July 2021 setting out their actions, including:

  • Supporting greater HGV testing capacity with the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA)
  • A revised Large Goods Vehicle Driver apprenticeship standard, available from August 2021, and, possibly, a second proposed apprenticeship, Urban Driver
  • A temporary relaxation to drivers’ working hours rules
  • Working with businesses, Highways England and via planning to improve the quantity and quality of overnight facilities and access to facilities during the day
  • Support for an industry-led proposal for a Year of Logistics


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