There’s already a recruitment crisis in road haulage and up to 60,000 more drivers could be needed by hauliers if they are to comply with the Working Time Directive. Elaine Watson reports

Driving a truck for the best part of 60 hours a week is exhausting, bad for your health, bad for your family and lousy for your love life, according to Usdaw’s latest survey into hauliers’ hours.

Put simply, says the union, trucking is a dirty job with an image problem and recruitment is falling through the floor.

In 1992, the number of newly qualified HGV drivers topped 40,000. By 2002, this figure had plummeted to 15,000, and the problem is about to get a whole lot worse.

In March next year, drivers of goods vehicles fall under the scope of the Working Time Directive, which will limit them to an average 48-hour working week and a maximum of 60 hours in a single week. Night shifts could be restricted to 10 hours, making some journeys impossible without a split shift, changes to infrastructure or a shift to day-time working.

If implemented in full, this could mean slashing drivers’ working time by up to 12 hours a week and finding an extra 60,000 new drivers overnight. Not to mention 12,000 new trucks, pay rises across the board and reduced productivity through shifting more deliveries to daytime.

The Road Haulage Association reckons it could cost the haulage industry a cool £3.8bn in 2005 alone, a figure that is already sending shockwaves through boardrooms across the country.

According to Usdaw, which has just surveyed drivers from Tesco, Palmer & Harvey McLane, Wincanton and ACC Transport, 47% of drivers currently put in more than 55 hours a week and one in four work 60 hours or more. Most depend on overtime to make up their basic income.

A ceiling of an average 48 hours, says Hays Logistics driving development manager Patrick Henry, means they will expect a better basic wage.

And given demand already far outstrips supply when it comes to driver recruitment, employers will have to pay up, he claims.

“We’re paying ridiculous money already, and unions are stuck in the middle. Many members don’t want the directive, but they don’t want to lose out on pay.”

If existing drivers are to be no worse off next year, wage rates would have to rise by about 10.3%, predicts the Department for Transport, which is a lot of money when you are talking about 500,000 drivers.

However, throwing money at the recruitment problem isn’t the answer, insists Henry. “It’s not just about pay. It’s about training and career progression. Let’s face it, who do you think of when you think of a trucker? A 50-year-old man. There is also no obvious career path. You get your licence, but then where do you go? How often do drivers become team leaders, transport managers and logistics directors?”

Recruitment used to be a regional problem, he says. “It’s a national issue now.” However, there are particular hotspots, says Kirsten Tisdale, head of logistics consultancy Aricia. “If you interview a driver in Swindon for example, your only question is, when can you start?”

One wholesaler we spoke to said things had become so bad that he would “employ a gorilla if it had an HGV licence”.

As to whether the directive will force big changes to infrastructure, everything hinges on whether the government adopts the proposed 10-hour cap on night shifts. If this is imposed, it could herald a massive shift in working patterns, claims Christian Salvesen’s client solutions director David Godsell. “Not only will shift start and finish times need to be thought through, but depot infrastructures overhauled. Alternatively, drivers will have to double up on long hauls or switch traffic to day time networks.”

Somerfield logistics director Martin Oakes adds: “The irony is that this could mean poorer vehicle utilisation if we have to reroute trips according to drivers’ hours rather than capacity. Likewise, pushing lorry traffic into peak day-time traffic flies in the face of everything we are trying to do from an environmental point of view.”

Another area of uncertainty surrounds ‘periods of availability’- periods when drivers are available to work (and therefore paid), but don’t count as ‘working time’. As with all legislation, the devil is in the detail, which is where the directive descends into a muddy minefield.

If, for example, a driver turns up at a depot and is told that he will have a two-hour wait before he can drop off his goods - and the customer signs a sheet of paper to that effect - those two hours will not count as working time. If, by contrast, a driver turns up at a depot and sits in a queue for two hours, but no one tells him how long the wait will be, the wait will count as working time.

Confused? You should be, says Martin Brown, MD at Grimsby-based haulier TH Brown. “It’s an administrative minefield.”

As with the supermarket code of practice, phrases like “reasonable notice” will inevitably cause problems, he adds. “Who defines what’s reasonable?”

What discussions like this also highlight is how little time drivers actually spend driving, says software company Cirrus Logistics, which is working with the likes of Sainsbury to model flows through depots to help reduce waiting time at depots.

“Up to 30% of drivers’ time is wasted waiting at depots,” says a spokesman. “This will be an unsupportable waste of resource once the directive on working time comes into full effect.”

Indeed, many believe that it will not only drive more collaboration in the industry by prompting non-competing companies to share resources, but it will force businesses to become more efficient. Likewise, by forcing the industry to address its long hours culture, the directive could, ironically, alleviate some recruitment problems, says Martin Brown. “Society is changing and our industry is behind the times. This could lure back drivers who have quit because the hours are so anti-social.”

The crucial thing for companies affected is to start planning now, says Wincanton general manger Carol Broadbent. “There are some outbases where we can’t get back in one shift safely within the 10 hours, so we are looking at trailer swaps, where a driver at an outbase does the return journey.”

Tesco, meanwhile, is focusing on how to make drivers more productive, while Robert Wiseman Dairies is concentrating on training and recruitment.

However, some companies are simply burying their heads in the sand, says Aricia’s Tisdale. “When it comes to recruitment, the industry hasn’t helped itself. There is actually government money available to help with training, for example. But only £30m [of the £100m road haulage modernisation fund] has been spent.”

As to who will be hit the hardest by the directive, most agree that operators relying heavily on nightwork will suffer the most. Smaller hauliers may also be disadvantaged, because they don’t have the resources to take away non-driving functions from drivers or to invest in training.

A more pressing concern, however, is that the consultation process is taking so long that there could barely be any time between when the final regulations are produced and when they hit the statute books next March, warns Freight Transport Association policy manager Joan Williams.

“If the draft regulation comes through in May and the final regulations are published in autumn, that gives us only six months to implement it all. Any less than that and we’re in trouble.”