The food supply chain is driving head-first into a significant period of disruption, unless the government is willing to engage in quick thinking and decisive action to help solve the challenge created by unprecedented levels of demand, at a time of acute labour shortage.
The driver shortage is a particular threat to the recovery of the hospitality and catering industry and affects every corner of the food and drink supply chain.
The public are already starting to notice the resulting gaps: on retailers’ shelves; in failed waste disposal collections; and through the items missing from the menus at their local pubs and restaurants. This stems from the nationwide HGV driver shortage, which the Road Haulage Association believes is in the order of 100,000 missing roles.
The fundamental issue is an ever-decreasing talent pool of drivers, many of whom departed our shores during the Covid-19 pandemic, and either can’t (or don’t want to) return through an immigration system that does not recognise driving as being highly skilled. That’s not the only problem: we have an ageing driver population (the average is 55 years old) adding to the systemic shortage that will only increase unless the problem is recognised and a clear policy is created.
The impacts are being felt across the entire supply chain, from the producer to the operator, as everyone is competing for drivers to haul and distribute products and supplies. This is leading to rapid wage inflation, which of course will work its way through to the consumer’s pocket in time. The disconnect at a government level is a failure to see driving as a part of the critical infrastructure that supports feeding the nation, and that this will disproportionately affect smaller farmers, producers and suppliers who will be hardest hit by surging distribution costs.
So, far from ‘crying wolf’, we urge the government to act and we are collectively supporting our industry associations who are trying to translate the seriousness of this crisis. Our situation may be a conflation of different problems, but at its heart is a structural need to rapidly increase the available labour pool, and that requires direct government intervention.
The industry must also help itself. We should recognise that professional driving has an image problem, and we need to make this a more attractive career for younger people. Only 2% of HGV drivers are under 25. The answer is more apprenticeships; company sponsorship of licence attainment; and evolving vehicles, technology and working practices that will support and attract the next generation of drivers. In the near term it’s identifying those ex-drivers who have left the industry to persuade some to come back; and encouraging those approaching retirement to hold back.
The better news is that the government has committed to prioritise accelerating the 30,000 HGV driving test gap, built up when tests were cancelled during the Covid lockdown. While this is welcome it cannot be the only answer. There are some other quick wins that Westminster can consider. For example temporarily reducing restrictions on working hours. This cannot and should not be seen as a long-term solution, but could provide much-needed relief in the short term. These changes, coupled with the addition of HGV drivers to the Skilled Worker Shortage Occupation List – or a short-term option, along the lines of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme – will help to get the industry through the difficult weeks ahead.
There is no simple, quick-win solution here, as demand is set to outstrip driver capacity for many months to come. It is therefore important that we collaborate across the supply chain. Industry must work hand-in-hand with government, but to achieve this we must first make clear the serious consequences of a gummed-up and supply-restricted industry going into a summer period of significant staycation-based consumer demand. The industry community and government figured out how to keep the trucks and supplies rolling through the pandemic – we believe urgent collaboration is needed once again to keep the nation fully fed.