Is haulage sector on the road to nowhere?

Few topics have dominated the minds of those who manage the distribution and storage of goods across the UK more than the skills shortage in the sector. And, when you see the statistics, it’s easy to understand why.

Latest figures from trade body, the Freight Transport Association, show that the driver shortage currently stands at 50,000, but it estimates that this figure will increase to 76,000 with the introduction of the Road Transport (Working Time) Directive in March next year, as drivers’ hours will be cut. And this is in addition to the sector’s headache over the ever-ageing workforce, with the average age of an HGV driver being over 50.

So what’s the problem? Haulage firms say the perception of long hours and low pay is deterring new recruits, while others say that the expense and increased complexity of teaching people to drive HGVs is preventing hauliers from offering training.

Wally Smith, director at Essex-based D Perfect & Sons, believes the problems began in 1996 when the Government introduced laws to stop car drivers from being able to drive small rigid lorries without taking a separate test. A second test is also required before a driver is able to get behind the wheel of an articulated vehicle. This change in the law raised the cost of training from 1,000 to 2,500.

Smith said: “We would love to provide training, but we can’t because it’s too expensive. You have to take the driver on for nine months before you see any return. Even then we take a hit on our insurance because of their inexperience.”

In March, the Government tried to address the situation by granting a five-year licence to Skills for Logistics (SfL) to operate as the Sector Skills Council serving the industry. The organisation, which was awarded a budget of 4.9m in its first year, has been charged with raising productivity and business performance across the haulage sector, from road to rail to shipping.

SfL has already introduced grants of up to 2,500 for any employee wanting to expand their skills base by taking their HGV licence test. It is the first time that funding has been made available for the training of over-25s.

The organisation will also develop curriculum materials for schools to introduce logistics to the employees of the future, and develop options to link schools to industry through a new structured approach to entry-level training.

The Department for Transport has offered its support to the sector through its Respect for People project. Launched in March 2003, it aims to address the skills crisis by developing and implementing key performance indicators (KPIs) and benchmark measures to improve the status and workplace conditions of lorry drivers, as well as driver recruitment, retention and development.

The KPIs look at driver welfare, safety and security, facilities and amenities, personal and professional standards, equality and diversity, and training and development.

Transport minister David Jamieson said: “The initiative offers a way for companies to measure their performance and identify where they can make improvements.”

The Government also launched a pilot scheme to train convicted criminals to drive trucks. The re-establishment programme, which involved the Road Haulage Association, the CBI and SfL, allows prisoners nearing the end of their sentences to take their HGV test and apply for driving jobs.

Many larger logistics companies have launched their own training initiatives. In February 2003, TNT Express Services introduced Trailblazer, with the intention of enhancing the driving skills of 83 warehouse workers, to enable them to progress onto collection and delivery duties in HGVs.

Malcolm Pickup, network operations training and development manager at the firm, said: “The project enables us to meet our future needs through succession planning. We can produce new HGV drivers and also upgrade existing drivers. It acts as a massive motivation to the individual and enables us to look after the people within our business.”

Sister company TNT Logistics offered all employees over the age of 21 holding a car licence the chance to train as truck drivers, and haulier Gist will fund the training of warehouse staff through their HGV licences.

However, it’s not only drivers that the sector is lacking – trained technicians and mechanics are also in short supply.

Government figures estimate that there are 212,000 technicians working on the maintenance of light and heavy vehicles, and only 20,000 have gained full NVQ certificates in the past eight years.

Tracey Shelley, chief executive of the Society of Operational Engineers, said: “All too often I hear people bemoaning the industry’s skills shortage in the workshop, but I doubt that as an industry we are doing enough to attract and retain skilled staff.

“Commitment to a national licensing scheme that benchmarks competence would not only add prestige to the work of technicians and mechanics, but would also help to address the skill shortage.”

Leading truck manufacturer Mercedes Benz boosted its provision of trainee technicians last year through a successful recruitment drive that targeted 6,000 schools, colleges and careers offices. It also advertised in trade magazines and ‘lads mags’, including Loaded, Top Gear and FHM.

The advert stressed that a service technician isn’t someone who wields a spanner lying in grease, but someone who receives four years’ training, uses computers, has secure employment, and can earn between 30,000 and 35,000 within five years.

Yorkshire-based Aire Truck Bodies embarked on its own apprenticeship scheme working with a local technical college. The four-year course will enable each participant to gain a GNVQ level three.

Although it is still early days, it is clear that if training projects are not successful in combating the national skills shortage, companies will increasingly begin looking to mainland Europe for new recruits. Estimates of how many European employees will enter the sector over the next year vary between 1,000 to 5,000 plus. However, the effect this will have on the UK haulage sector is yet to be seen.

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