Britain’s trucker shortage jams post-pandemic recovery

Lorries are seen at an HGV parking, at Cobham services on the M25 motorway, Cobham, Britain, August 31, 2021. Picture taken August 31, 2021. REUTERS/Peter Cziborra

Two furloughed jumbo jet pilots and a burnt-out finance worker have been among the more unusual candidates to learn how to drive 44-tonne trucks at Laurence Bolton’s school in south London during the pandemic.

“You get people from all industries, and think: ‘Blimey, I never saw you here before 2020’,” Bolton said. “There are more people that have been displaced from retail, with the high street closing or certainly running down, and from hospitality.”

Business is brisk for truck driving schools as Britain emerges from its COVID-19 crisis. The country is facing an acute shortage of lorry drivers, and haulage companies are raising starting salaries and offering sign-on bonuses to entice candidates in the post-pandemic economy.

Bolton, managing director of the National Driving Centre, said he had seen a 20% rise in the number of people seeking to become truckers compared with before the pandemic.

It’s not enough, though. Britain needs 100,000 more drivers if it is to meet demand, according to the UK’s Road Haulage Association (RHA). The signs are already there: sporadic gaps on supermarket shelves, pubs running low on beer, McDonald’s (MCD.N) suspending milkshakes.

The shortfall, mirrored to a lesser degree in other countries like the United States and Germany, spells potential trouble on the inflation front. Truckers are a central cog in the global economy, carrying almost all our goods. If there aren’t enough of them, it is likely to drive up prices.

Wesley Van Tonder, who delivered food for Uber Eats and Deliveroo during the pandemic, is among those workers who have sought to change course in the new reality – he has cashed in his motorbike to fund truck-driving lessons at Bolton’s school.

“Now everything is starting to open back up so there’s more people on the road, and on the bike it’s a bit dangerous,” he said. “I’d rather drive a truck.”

‘SUPPLY CHAIN CAN’T COPE’

The Bank of England expects British inflation to hit a 10-year high of 4% this year. How fast it might fall thereafter depends in part on how quickly people who have lost their jobs in the pandemic switch to sectors such as logistics where workers are badly needed.

UK manufacturers said shortages of raw materials and delivery delays disrupted production last month, leading to slower growth and a marked increase in costs.

Britain is not alone with its driver shortage. United States trucking firms want more visas for foreign drivers and German logistics bodies estimate a 45,000-60,000 driver shortage there.

But the gap is bigger in Britain, where post-Brexit immigration rules since Jan. 1 have cost the industry 20,000 drivers from the European Union, the RHA told Reuters.

Normally nearly 40,000 people a year pass tests to drive a lorry in Britain, but this fell by almost two-thirds last year at the height of the pandemic when many driving schools were closed for long stretches in an already aging industry.

“We do not have enough fresh blood coming in,” said RHA policy director Rod McKenzie. “Britons will not get the things they want. That is the position we’re in now. And it’s getting worse between now and Christmas.”

This was echoed by Bolton at the National Driving Centre.

“You’ve got to make sure that Amazon deliveries arrive at people’s doors,” he said. “People have the expectation that everything is ‘click to buy’, with the expectation ‘I want it here tomorrow’. But the supply chain can’t cope with it, with the amount of drivers that are left in the industry.”

Britain’s government has rejected industry calls to temporarily ease visa restrictions for EU lorry drivers, and instead told the sector to improve pay and conditions.

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