Innovative initiative addresses driver shortage

The haulage industry faces a growing driver shortage. Picture: Craig Stephen
The haulage industry faces a growing driver shortage. Picture: Craig Stephen
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Jobcentre Plus project will raise industry profile, says Martin Reid

WE depend so much on trucks and their drivers. The houses we live in, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the jobs that give us employment and wealth – all depend on road haulage. Suddenly in recent weeks we have seen the impact on our valuable fishing industry of the chaos 700 miles away in Calais. Fishing boats in northern and eastern Scotland stopping going out because the catch cannot be delivered reliably to customers on the continent.

Calais has been rightly dominating the headlines. But there is also a less dramatic, long-term threat to our vital haulage service. We face a growing driver shortage, which is starting to impact on service levels available to customers – and which will have a far more serious impact on the Scottish economy than shortages of, say, baristas or sandwich makers.

We have an ageing workforce due to a range of factors, including a lack of training. The UK as a whole needs up to 600,000 HGV drivers and loses around 35,000 a year through retirement or failure to pass periodic medical tests, yet the number of drivers being trained has fallen steadily, to around 18,000. The difference is made up partly by importing drivers from abroad, partly we just fall further short of drivers.

The Road Haulage Association is taking a lead in working to halt the decline and we have a number of initiatives that will be visible this autumn. One is a ground-breaking project with Jobcentre Plus, called Driving Britain’s Future, which will give unemployed people first-hand experience of the industry, raise the profile of participating companies and the sector as a whole, and will, we believe, get people into jobs.

The project gives unemployed people the opportunity of two weeks of work experience at an RHA member company, going out with the driver to see what the job is really like and the opportunities it offers. They may also spend time in the traffic office or the warehouse. While the focus is on identifying suitable drivers, there may be other opportunities at the company.

This is a quality-driven project, with staff from Jobcentre Plus and the RHA working together. Jobcentre Plus staff are briefed on the personal qualities employers are looking for and use that when selecting customers for the scheme. RHA staff will present to the candidates so that they have a clear idea of what to expect, broadly, before they confirm their willingness to commit to the work experience. We don’t want to waste their time or that of our members with people who are ill-suited to the needs of the job.

Already we are starting to see benefits for the industry in terms of greater understanding among Jobcentre Staff of the opportunities available in the industry. And the scheme will get people out of unemployment and into jobs.

The two weeks can transform the candidate’s perception of the industry – and our members will have been able to see at first hand the personal qualities and potential of the individuals involved, in a way that is far more telling than a simple interview. We already have examples of members saying that they would employ candidates they have seen on the work experience, to whom they would not even have given an interview based on their CV.

So far so good. We could do even better, though. Everyone associated with the project knows that it would be an outstanding success were funding support available towards the cost of training candidates so that they could drive trucks.

The RHA has asked the government in Westminster to provide a degree of funding and we have had support from MPs. A west London MP who has taken a keen interest in the industry’s problems, Seema Malhotra, urged George Osborne to back the RHA’s call to part-fund truck driver training generally, and the project with Jobcentre Plus specifically, during the Budget debate in the Commons.

Sadly, these calls have fallen on deaf ears. There is a massive opportunity for Scotland to take a lead on this issue. We believe that funding is urgently needed to see off a worsening driver shortage, whether the new entrant is unemployed or in work. After all, if they are in work, a new job is created when they start driving.

But what better place to start than an innovative, quality-driven process to get people who are out of work into essential, well-paid, long-term employment in a large, diverse industry with great potential for career development.

Martin Reid is Business Unit Director (North) at the Road Haulage Association