Business Essentials: 'Lorry driving is not a dead-end job, but no one wants to be a trucker'

Beset by a national skills shortage, a road-transport firm asks how it can attract young people of both sexes
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The Independent Online

Most of the lorry drivers at RH Freight are men aged between 40 and 60. "If you think of it like a conveyor belt, they'll all eventually fall off the end, and we're worried because we're finding it hard to get younger people on board," says Nigel Baxter, transport director of the firm, which has 18 sites in the UK.

It is a problem shared by the whole of the transport logistics sector. There is a national shortage of 15,000 LGV (large goods vehicle) drivers and only 1 per cent of those employed at the moment are women. Many firms, like RH Freight, want to know how to attract more people, given lorry driving's image as a dead-end job dominated by white, middle-aged men.

Mr Baxter, who employs 700 people, believes it can prove a rewarding career. "The pay isn't bad at all - our articulated truck drivers earn £26,000 to £34,000. In addition, you're pretty much your own boss, you're not confined to one place and you can expect to drive comfortable, air-conditioned vehicles.

"There are variable shift patterns and it's a much more sophisticated industry these days, thanks to technology such as satellite navigation."

And because RH Freight is principally involved in European road freight, there are lots of exciting routes, he adds.

Mr Baxter believes the work should suit both genders. "Before the Road Transport Directive came into effect last year, drivers typically worked 65 hours a week, whereas now we are down to 48 and there is more control over finish times. Since women still tend to be in charge of childcare, the new system is much better for them.

"Health and safety legislation has also been tightened up and the rules on manual handling have changed. Meanwhile, we've had to adapt the equipment itself, which is far more lightweight and less arduous to use than in the past."

So why the skills shortage? Mr Baxter believes it's partly because the sector is still stuck with a poor image. "I don't have any knowledge of any efforts to present our industry as an option in schools and colleges."

On top of this, he says there are many misconceptions, such as long working hours and heavy, outdated equipment. "There's also the fact that the UK is renowned for poor roadside services. If you look at truck stops, it's true there is little provision for females and poor access to toilet and washing facilities."

In the past, he adds, 16-year-old school leavers came into the business and started off as warehouse operatives or driver's mates. After this, they would soon find themselves on the road because they were allowed, under a normal driving licence, to drive a light goods vehicle (up to 7.5 tons). "That got young people interested and they'd want to get into driving larger vehicles."

However, a legal reform in 1996 changed all this. Although it shifted the age at which you can qualify to drive a 7.5-ton truck only from 17 to 18, Mr Baxter points out that most people going into manual jobs do so when they leave school. "They don't want to reinvent their careers later down the line. So, in my view, we've cut off that supply line."


Steve Agg, Chief Executive, The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport

"Education, training and development are the keys to our future. Employers like RH Freight need to invest in young people and, for example, bring them in on apprenticeships. You can start learning logistics skills before the age of 21 [when LGV licences become available] by working in administration, inventory management and planning, transport scheduling, management and customer service. Who better to teach these skills than good employers in tandem with accredited training providers?

"In the case of drivers, the cost of obtaining licences is significant, so RH Freight could fund individuals and allow costs to disperse over time. This could appeal to men and women, especially if the working week can be adapted to suit family life.

"Government and industry bodies must work together and invest money in our people in order to improve the image and status of logistics in society."

Peter Coghlan, Safety Director, TDG (Logistics Firm)

"An ageing workforce is an issue for the entire industry: there's a shortage of new entrants into mechanical engineering and transport management, as well as driving. It's a symptom of the educational system in the UK, and the move away from traditional apprenticeships, as well as many of the specific issues that Mr Baxter mentions.

"A problem on this scale can't be solved by any one company, but we can't just sit there and do nothing. TDG has put in place a number of initiatives that are beginning to bear fruit. One is the mini-apprenticeship scheme we have for would-be drivers. It is run in partnership with driving agencies, and enables young people to train for their HGV [heavy goods vehicle] licences, then spend time learning about our products and practices. If they are successful on the scheme, they have the option to join us as full-time drivers."

Ian Hetherington, Chief Executive, Skills For Logistics

"Mr Baxter mentions his struggle to recruit younger people, so I'd suggest he considers joining our Young Driver scheme. This enables companies to employ people aged between 16 and 21 and give them access to training for their LGV licence - a great incentive for school leavers keen to get on the road. We've also run a women-only training scheme in Scotland, which RH Freight could consider adopting.

"Speaking to schools, colleges and careers advisory services is also important, and an area where more support from employers would be welcome. Some firms have found that linking up with local schools to run interactive open days works well. It's vital that we, as an industry, make ourselves relevant to people of all ages and from all communities."