Worth more than their weight in gold!

Worth more than their weight in gold!

The pandemic has showcased the vital importance of truck drivers. But, despite this, not everyone who makes a living from navigating the road has remained employed. JACO DE KLERK dives into the global shortage of heavy commercial vehicle drivers and discovers that the pandemic certainly isn’t the only reason why.

As Business Insider South Africa reports: “Companies in the United States are actively recruiting truck drivers from South Africa. In the United Kingdom, hourly wages have hit the equivalent of a R1-million annual salary for suitably qualified heavy goods vehicle drivers.”

In its piece “The US is importing SA truck drivers … Here’s how to get in” it adds that those countries are not alone. “Driver shortages are hitting various regions as economies reboot after laying off drivers not needed during lockdowns, or after drivers on furlough sought out surer employment in less demanding industries – as the need to move stuff around keeps growing.”

Rob Peacock, the co-founder of the Experienced Associates’ professional driver programme and a recruiter of South African truck drivers for export, said: “Our clients over there [in the United States] are astounded by the fact that we have major companies in South Africa retrenching while in the US they are desperate for them.”

Suitable truck drivers from South Africa have the opportunity to work in the US or other countries – at sometimes eye-popping salaries in rand terms – in an industry that insiders say offers decent prospects beyond that. “Build up some capital and you can become an owner-driver, leverage that into owning a small fleet, perhaps move into training or safety work.”

The pandemic isn’t solely to blame

The shortage abroad has been plaguing the industry long before the pandemic hit. “Analysts say a global shortage of truck drivers has persisted since the middle of the 2000s,” the Financial Times (FT) reports in its piece “It’s not a normal life: truck drivers warn of burnout as global shortage bites”.

In 2018, the US industry was short nearly 61 000 drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA). It estimates a shortage of 160 000 drivers by 2028.

“Bob Costello, chief economist at ATA, said the number of drivers in general freight in the US had dropped to 430 000, down from 465 000 people at the start of 2020,” the FT notes – quoting Costello: “The driver shortage in the US is getting even worse; it is as bad as it has ever been.”

The US publication Bulk Transporter adds that one of the reasons for the shortage, according to the ATA, is that the workforce is ageing. “The average age of a truck driver is 55 years and many drivers opted for early retirement in the last year due to the pandemic, or chose to pursue alternative careers outside of trucking due to Covid-19-related health concerns,” it explains in its piece “Keep it moving: How trucking can address its driver shortage dilemma”.

“This further compounded the workforce shortage. There are simply not enough qualified, younger drivers to replace those who are leaving the profession. Over the next decade, the trucking industry has said they will need to hire more than one million new drivers.”

The UK has been hit particularly hard not only by the departure of drivers from EU countries, because of Brexit and the pandemic, but also by reform to tax legislation introduced this year that drastically reduced incomes for agency workers.

“Pandemic-driven backlogs at testing centres have hindered the flow of new drivers, with the UK logistics sector pushing for a stop-gap solution of drivers from EU countries being given temporary visas,” the FT reports, adding that there are still practical difficulties. Rod McKenzie, head of policy at the Road Haulage Association, said: “Even if we were allowed to recruit drivers from the EU, there’s a shortage of drivers there as well. The only place that doesn’t have a significant shortage of drivers is Africa.”

Large companies are going on the charm offensive to hire new recruits. “Walmart is offering an $8 000 signing bonus for some drivers, while British retailer John Lewis announced plans to raise driver salaries by up to £5 000 a year,” the FT writes.

But trade groups say the bonuses and better pay only encourage drivers to move from one employer to another without attracting new blood to the profession.” It seems as if this is changing in the UK, as Reuters notes in its piece “Britain’s trucker shortage jams post-pandemic recovery.

Laurence Bolton, managing director of the National Driving Centre in south London, 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,” Reuters writes. “Britain needs 100 000 more drivers if it is to meet demand, according to the UK’s Road Haulage Association. The signs are already there: sporadic gaps on supermarket shelves, pubs running low on beer, McDonald’s suspending milkshakes.”

The power of perception?

Some people, fortunately, are embracing the industry. Like Wesley van Tonder, who delivered food for Uber Eats and Deliveroo during the pandemic. He has sold his motorbike to fund truck-driving lessons at Bolton’s school.

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

But not everyone shares his sentiment … In 2019, Dr Chao Ji-Hyland and Declan Allen from the School of Management and College of Business at Technological University Dublin, published their research study titled “What do professional drivers think about their profession? An examination of factors contributing to the driver shortage”.

“They found that key issues for drivers were pay and conditions, long working hours but more tellingly was the unfavourable views held by the public towards drivers and the consensus that drivers need to be treated with more respect and dignity,” Fleet Transport wrote in its piece “Driver Shortage Challenges Ireland’s Supply Chain”.

This is cause for concern as, in Ireland, road transport accounts for approximately 99% of the total inland freight transport due to the significantly lower contribution of other modes of transport.

“Our reliance on truck drivers is not reflected in the status this profession has within the supply chain or in the public domain and must be challenged,” the Irish publication points out.

Not only limited to the west

The driver shortage isn’t only a western problem. The FT reports: “Keith Newton, secretary-general of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport International, said members in Australia and central Asia had reported heavy goods vehicle driver shortages of 20% … Increasingly, global trade is becoming more complex, consumers want quicker deliveries, and simply there are not enough skilled heavy goods vehicle drivers to handle this demand around the world.”

Transportation and logistics firms in Japan are also facing growing difficulties in securing truck drivers, and some seem to be falling short of providing better support around health and reducing fatigue. UD Trucks conducted an online survey of some 200 transportation company managers and 200 drivers in Japan between June 2 and June 5, which showed that more than 70% of transportation company managers were experiencing a driver shortage. The following solutions were proposed:

  • Reducing required work hours of drivers (50%);
  • Increasing salary of drivers (48%);
  • Hiring younger drivers (31%); and
  • Providing better healthcare support for drivers (30%).

On the subject of healthcare, over 91% of transportation company managers said it was “vital” to manage the health of their drivers.

Conversely, only 23% of the 200 drivers surveyed thought that their employers were doing enough to reduce the burden of driving or improve their health. Nearly all drivers surveyed felt that it was essential to have decent health management measures in place, while some 80% cited difficulties in doing so within their own capacity without the support of their employers.

Nearly 90% of drivers wanted their employers to introduce trucks with advanced driver assist features that help reduce fatigue. Among drivers between the age of 20 and 39, 100% wanted to drive trucks with fatigue-reducing features.

So, while many factors are contributing to the global shortage of heavy commercial vehicle drivers, the problem can be addressed with advancements in driver comfort, training and by changing perceptions to meet the reality … the global economy will suffer if we don’t have people navigating the roads to get things where they need to go.

Truck drivers are certainly worth more than their weight in gold.

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Focus on Transport

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is one of the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publications in southern Africa.
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