Scotland’s lorry driver shortage: Image problem at heart of malaise

“We’ll just need to get a load of drivers onto Love Island and then it’ll become fashionable.”

Gary Hughes, like many in the logistics industry, knows only too well that lorry driving has an image problem.

The issue arguably lies at the heart of a chronic shortage that has become “acute”, according to industry body Logistics UK, because of Brexit and Covid.

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It’s now a glaring problem with gaps on supermarket shelves, fast food chain shortages and uncertainty over Christmas supplies.

Bullet Express managing director John McKail said some of its lorries were off the road for lack of drivers. Picture: Peter Devlin

The Road Haulage Association said the UK driver shortage has increased from 60,000 to 100,000 among a pre-pandemic total of 600,000.

Mr Hughes, a director of Aberdeenshire-based Caledonian Logistics, is one of many Scottish haulage managers struggling to cope with demand while trying to hold onto their drivers when new entrants have been unable to take driving tests to qualify and EU drivers have returned home.

It has triggered spiralling wage rates, retention bonuses and some drivers even paid to sit drinking tea.

Caledonian Logistics, which transports everything from crisps to garden furniture on pallets from its depots in Kintore, Inverness, Cumbernauld and Lockerbie, is about nine short of its usual 70 to 75 drivers.

Caledonian Logistics said consumers should pay more respect for lorry drivers' role

Mr Hughes said several of the vacancies were caused by driving test centres being closed by the pandemic, which is estimated to have prevented 25,000 new drivers from joining, but he’s been in the industry long enough to know there is a far deeper malaise.

He told The Scotsman: "We don’t have the best image.

"Some drivers stay in their cab four or five nights a week, and the facilities at services and at the roadside are poor to say the least.

“Being away from home that length of time is not for everybody.”

“There’s more money and better conditions in other sectors."

Lorry drivers also do “multi-drop” collections and deliveries from depots, typically working from 7-8am to 4-5pm, while a third set follow set “line haul” or “trunking” routes such as between Scotland, the north west of England and the Midlands.

They are all limited to driving nine hours a day.

The average age of drivers is 47, with large numbers due to retire over the next decade, and only 2 per cent are women.

Mr Hughes said there was a pressing need to make the industry more attractive.

He said: "The RAF and the Army have had some brilliant adverts recently which show all the different careers you could have, and the logistics industry needs to do the same.

"There’s various routes you could take, starting in a warehouse and ending up being a transport manager, and I don’t think the industry advertises that well.”

For now, many companies are relying on agency drivers and sub-contractors to keep goods moving, which has led to some extreme tactics.

Mr Hughes said: "Some of the larger companies are paying agency drivers to sit in the canteen because they don’t have work for them at that moment, but they don’t want to give them back to the agencies in case they can’t get them back when they need them.

"That’s obviously having an impact on other companies that are needing them."

John McKail, managing director of Bothwell-based Bullet Express, is facing similar challenges.

His firm, which delivers freight on pallets on behalf of more than 500 companies in the retail, pharmaceutical, healthcare and construction sectors, has been forced to introduce retention bonuses to keep drivers and pay double-digit percentage wage increases.

He said: "We should have 70 drivers, but are getting by day to day with 10-15 per cent agency and sub-contract drivers.

"They are now a necessary requirement, but up to 50 per cent more expensive.

"When there is more work than we can cope with due to driver shortages, some days we are faced with having to park vehicles up because we cannot get drivers.

"The problem you have now is that loyalty is being tested – you’ve got the big supermarkets which have deeper pockets than many of us.

"They are offering sign-on bonuses of up to £4,000 to attract drivers whose rates of pay are up to £50,000 a year.

“They are saying ‘come and work for us and you can earn as much as a junior doctor for driving a truck’.”

Bullet Express has its own training academy, but Covid put paid to that as a solution.

Mr McKail said: "We try to encourage some of the younger people in the warehouse to take up driving roles as the next step in the ladder before moving into management.

"Those opportunities were closed down last year.”

He said the impact was mounting because the UK Government refused to give EU drivers skilled workers’ visas.

The British Retail Consortium warned MPs this week that Christmas was going to be “incredibly challenging in some areas", although it was too early to predict whether there would be problems.

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But Mr Hughes said: "If we start a mass panic, we just end up with the same problem we had at the beginning of the pandemic.

"Will we end up with the shelves empty? No.

"Will we end up with a slight delay? Possibly.”

He also called for greater respect for drivers, adding: "The majority of stuff you have in your house at some point has been on a truck.

"Folk need to realise that and value what the guys are doing and the sacrifices some of them make staying away from their family all week.”

Alan McKinnon, professor emeritus at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and professor of logistics at Kuehne Logistics University in Germany, echoed that.

He said: “Given the critical role they play in the economy, the demands and stresses of the job and the increasingly complex world of regulation and IT within which they operate, lorry drivers deserve much more respect and higher rewards.

"It will, after all, be many years before mass use of autonomous vehicles consigns lorry driving to history.”

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