This article originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph.
It has been an extraordinary time to be working in the UK’s logistics sector. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated already shifting consumer behaviours and tested the flexibility and adaptability of all businesses. Meanwhile, the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union has brought about regulatory changes and challenges to day-to-day operations, not least in regard to hiring people. Dealing with any of these issues in isolation would have been a tall order, but their conflation has put intense pressure on supply chains. I am proud of how we as an industry have responded: the cogs of the economy were kept turning by thousands upon thousands of dedicated and hard-working people in production sites and warehouses and by drivers up and down the country. Indeed, the crisis brought into much sharper focus the value of supply chains and those who work within them, with the Government identifying our people as key workers alongside those in the NHS and other front-line services.
Now, however, we are facing into the fact that the flows of commerce have changed, perhaps for good – and as a country we have to keep pace with changes to ways of working. As we emerge from the pandemic and the economy reboots itself, availability of labour is not keeping up with the demands of doing business in the ‘new normal’. The next great challenge we face in our economy is one of people.
It will have been impossible to miss the stories of driver shortages in recent weeks. The trickle of drivers returning to Europe because of Brexit was turned into a flood by COVID – people wanted to be closer to their homes and their families. The Road Hauliers Association estimates there is a shortfall of some 100,000 HGV drivers in the UK. The implications of this are taking place in real time, with shelves empty again. Businesses from brewers through to dairy producers have sounded the alarm on the impact on supply and their costs and, eventually, there will be a knock-on impact for consumers as prices rise and inflation follows.
The driver shortage is only the tip of the iceberg for resource shortages in the wider logistics sector. We have data coming through daily from our business and our recruitment partners citing record vacancies. Ask anyone in the sector and they will tell you about what is happening in Northampton and a number of other logistics employment ‘hotspots’. The competition for people is intense; wage inflation is running high and many people are refusing permanent jobs because they can make as much through agency work, with greater flexibility.
There is no quick fix to address these shortfalls and we and our peers and our customers are fully focused on everything we need to do to. We know we need to pay people more and look at initiatives such as signing on bonuses and training incentives. But these represent a small step in tackling the structural challenges we face to ensure our country’s supply chain is properly resourced and capable of meeting the needs of a resurgent economy and in particular the continued shift to online retail.
Delivering the changes needed will require work from all businesses in our sector, from our customers and from government. For instance, when it comes to drivers, we need to make HGV driving a more inclusive, flexible and rewarding profession. For too long, we have failed to replenish the ranks of our drivers with younger recruits, deterred by unsociable hours and a lack of appreciation for the skill and responsibility required in the role. We need more diversity, including greater female representation. We also need creativity and flexibility around shift patterns, and more investment in facilities and amenities.
The demand is there. At Wincanton, we have close to 600 vacancies for driver roles, and we anticipate we will receive over 3,000 applications.
But we need wider changes and that will need joined up thinking with Government. The HGV driver testing regime requires a shake-up; the process is outdated and an unnecessary bottle neck at such a critical time. It can be streamlined without in any way undermining its rigour and safety. There is also an opportunity to divert apprenticeship levy funding and fast-track learning opportunities for young drivers that would see their qualification time cut from 12 months to three. All of these things will allow us to build a stronger, British workforce, including hiring those coming off furlough. But this takes time and we have an immediate problem as we approach the busiest time of the year, with Black Friday and Christmas ahead of us. In order to avoid putting intolerable strain on our supply chain we need a short-term fix as we focus on the longer-term solutions. We would like the government to consider a temporary relaxation of the rules around foreign drivers to enable us to get over this squeezed period.
Looking beyond drivers, change is needed. Current regulations ensuring wage parity between agency workers and permanent employees are an important safeguard to workers’ livelihoods. The unintended consequence, however, is that it has made it harder to encourage people to take on the full-time roles we need to fulfil the complex supply chain needs of businesses. . In our experience, permanent colleagues deliver higher productivity with lower levels of absence. They gain new skills and often develop careers through training and development opportunities.
UK business has withstood the challenges of the past two years. As we turn to the next stage of recovery and renewal for our economy, it is impossible to overstate the importance of ensuring a resilient, flexible supply chain infrastructure. This is the foundation on which the UK will be able to flourish for the decade ahead and beyond.