London - Two furloughed jumbo jet pilotsand 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, Inever saw you here before 2020'," Bolton said. "There are more people that have been displaced from retail, with the highstreet 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 acuteshortage of lorry drivers, and haulage companies are raisingstarting salaries and offering sign-on bonuses to enticecandidates 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 tobecome truckers compared with before the pandemic. It's not enough, though. Britain needs 100,000 more driversif 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 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 andDeliveroo during the pandemic, is among those workers who havesought 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 morepeople 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 a10-year high of 4% this year. How fast it might fall there after 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 toslower 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-Brexitimmigration rules since Jan. 1 have cost the industry 20,000drivers from the European Union, the RHA told Reuters. Normally nearly 40,000 people a year pass tests to drive alorry in Britain, but this fell by almost two-thirds last yearat the height of the pandemic when many driving schools wereclosed 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 thingsthey 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 atpeople's doors," he said. "People have the expectation thateverything is 'click to buy', with the expectation 'I want ithere tomorrow'. But the supply chain can't cope with it, withthe 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, andinstead told the sector to improve pay and conditions.
$7,000 SIGNING-ON BONUSES
The demand has driven up wages: salaries for new drivers inBritain rose by 5.7% between February and July compared with a0.8% increase across all types of jobs, according to Jack Kennedy, an economist at recruitment website Indeed. The shortage has also led companies such as Gist, a divisionof U.S.-German Linde which delivers food to Britishsupermarkets Tesco and Marks & Spencer, tooffer 5,000-pound ($6,900) sign-on and retention bonuses. Yet it's an industry where trade unions have long criticisedpay and conditions. The average hourly wage for truck drivers in 2020 was 11.80pounds an hour, or 30,820 pounds a year, according to officialdata. While the annual salary is roughly in line with the nationalaverage, hours are longer and often anti-social - a typicalfull-time truck driver was paid to work for 47 hours a week,compared with 37.5 hours for the average job. The sector in Britain is dominated by small haulagecompanies which operate on thin margins, pressured by bigcustomers in the retail and industrial sectors, according toAdrian Jones, a national officer at trade union Unite. Unite wants an industry-level agreement on minimum payrates, as in some other European countries and more regulated sub-sectors such as petrol and chemical delivery. Big signing-on bonuses from some large employers were nottranslating into broader pay rises, and instead suggested thatthey thought the current shortage would blow over, Jones said. "That's just a sticking plaster over a gaping wound. That isnot a solution to the problem," he added.
'I ALWAYS WANTED TO DO IT'