2021-09-30 10:05:36 U.K. Gas Shortages Reveal New Crucial Workers: Truck Drivers

U.K. Gas Shortages Reveal New Crucial Workers: Truck Drivers

LONDON: David Carden drove across England’s Midlands for more than three decades, transporting tens of thousands of liters of fuel from holding tanks to service stations. Because of the flammable liquid, it was a dangerous job that required skill and caution, but when he started, the pay and benefits were good, allowing him to support his young family.

Drivers’ conditions gradually deteriorated. The hours were extended, the roadside facilities deteriorated, and the benefits were reduced.

“Eventually,” Mr. Carden explained, “we lost a lot of what made the job worthwhile.”

He resigned in 2017.

Now, as a critical shortage of truck drivers has caused gas pumps across the country to run dry, disrupting the lives of thousands, Britons and their leaders in Parliament are sending a heartfelt message: We need you.

The government is writing to nearly 1 million people who have a license to drive a heavy goods vehicle, encouraging them to get back on the road. In addition, it is relaxing visa restrictions for thousands of foreign workers in the hope of luring them to work in the UK on a temporary basis.

However, the government may find that few people take them up on their offers. Mr. Carden, 57, was adamant: “There is no way I would go back into that industry.”

His dissatisfaction highlights the industry’s significant challenges. Tens of thousands of drivers from the European Union have left the country, largely because Brexit made it clear they were unwelcome, and prospective drivers have been unable to take their qualification tests for more than a year due to the pandemic. The drivers industry has long been dominated by men, and little has been done to increase the number of women in its ranks.

According to the Road Haulage Association, this has resulted in a shortage of up to 100,000 truck drivers in the United Kingdom.

Truck drivers have long felt underappreciated and increasingly stressed as a result of difficult working conditions, lower pay, and neglected truck stops, so the fact that employers are struggling to find workers comes as no surprise.

“No one thinks about lorry drivers until something goes wrong,” said Robert Booth, 50, a driver from Dover on England’s south coast.

And a lot of things went wrong this week: people had to wait in long lines to get gas, and some stations limited how much they could fill their tanks. Others simply couldn’t get to work because they didn’t have enough gas or because traffic had backed up around the gas stations, clogging the roads. Taxis and private ambulances, for example, have reduced their services.

The government activated the army, and on Thursday it announced that some military personnel would begin assisting in the delivery of fuel in the coming days.

The emergence of long-overlooked drivers as a vital cog in the nation’s economy is reminiscent of the pandemic’s first year. Workers who were previously considered low-skilled and underpaid — many of whom were migrants — captured the nation’s attention and gained newfound respect. People came out onto their doorsteps across the United Kingdom to applaud National Health Service workers. Supermarket cashiers and public transportation employees were no longer invisible, and were featured on the front covers of magazines such as British Vogue.

Truck drivers are now being heard and recruited, to the point where Prime Minister Boris Johnson overturned his post-Brexit immigration rules by approving the issuance of 5,000 temporary visas for foreign drivers until the end of the year.

However, the industry warns that it is likely too little, too late, as they await the details.

“On the one hand, it’s exactly what we asked the government to do,” said Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy at the Road Haulage Association, which has been lobbying for looser visa restrictions and twice the number of temporary visas. “However, three months is a very short time for people to give up their current job. It won’t even scratch the surface.”

Higher pay and bonuses may entice some drivers to return, but there are no quick fixes to this problem that has been brewing for years. Brexit has turned away European Union drivers who can now find better pay and roadside facilities on the continent, where driver shortages are as severe or worse in countries such as Poland and Germany.

In the United Kingdom, there is a significant backlog of driving tests, training is expensive, and the industry has not been successful in attracting a young workforce. The average trucker is around 50 years old, and many of the government’s letters will go through the doors of people who have retired or moved into management positions, according to Mr. McKenzie.

“They are not a pool of a hundred thousand people who will respond to the call and return to arms,” Mr. McKenzie explained. “I’m hoping we’ll get some of them. But there are no miracle cures here.”

Mr. Carden stopped driving a tanker truck about four years ago, when the job was taken over by a large logistics company and there was increased pressure to make deliveries faster. He is now a van driver for a family business.

Due to the high demand for qualified truck drivers, some tanker drivers have switched to better-paying jobs that require less hazardous deliveries. When Mr. Carden left, he stated that many of his colleagues also left around the same time.

“They’re thinking to themselves, ‘Why should I drive a 44,000-liter bomb around when I can get the same money delivering boxes of crisps into the supermarket?'” According to Mr. Carden.

“Neither the general public nor the government have appreciated this industry,” he added. “Drivers will spend nights away from home, and the facilities available to them are likely to be the poorest in Europe.”

Truck stop conditions are frequently cited as a reason why more people, particularly women, do not want to work in the industry. Mr. Booth, the Dover driver, is a tramper, meaning he transports construction materials over long distances. He typically travels for five days at a time, and while the hours are long, he enjoys the sense of adventure. “Let’s be honest: we all still feel like an eight-year-old kid who wants to drive big trucks,” he said.

However, he claims that the industry has ignored the realities of driver life on the road. There are frequently dirty showers, insufficient toilets, and a lack of security at rest stops. It can be difficult to find nutritious food. Mr. Booth maintains a Facebook page dedicated to documenting the healthy meals he prepares while traveling.

“The industry had taken it for granted that we would have a supply of cheaper labor from abroad,” he explained.

It will be difficult to persuade European workers to return to the UK because drivers have been treated unfairly and discriminated against, according to Tomasz Orynski, 41, who drives trucks part-time in Scotland. He moved to the United Kingdom from Poland in 2005, but he plans to return to the European Union soon.

“You’re constantly told how you’re a burden to this country,” he said, referring to the United Kingdom. “All the while, wages have been stagnant for a decade or more. So, what are you going to do? You pack your belongings and return to your country, which has grown rapidly over the years.”

Even if some drivers decide to apply for temporary visas in the UK, it is unlikely that they will be able to work for the full three months available because recruitment and relocation could take weeks. Emil Gerasimov, Ideal Recruit’s head of driving, has brought in drivers from abroad for the past seven years, particularly from Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland. Temporary visas are unlikely to provide much assistance.

“Why would they leave a safe job in Europe to come here for three months?” he wondered.

Steve Bowles owns Roy Bowles Transport, which transports cargo near London’s Heathrow Airport. The company is named after his father, who founded it in the 1950s. It has about 40 vehicles and only moves goods within a 50-mile radius of the airport, avoiding some of the more difficult aspects of the job, such as long nights on the road.

Mr. Bowles, like many other businesses, has increased pay for his employees, but he still says he is about 20% short of the number of drivers he requires. And, he lamented, the agency’s hiring costs have risen “through the roof sideways.”

“It’s extremely frustrating,” he admitted. “This is our busiest time of year, and it is limiting our business.”

Mr. Bowles used to drive the trucks himself before taking over the company’s management with his sister. He, too, may soon receive a letter from the government requesting that he resume driving. But, at 67 and with health issues, he has no plans to get back behind the wheel.

“I’m not going to drive,” he said. “What is the point of going out and leaving the office unattended if I can’t get the work done with my drivers?”

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U.K. Gas Shortages Reveal New Crucial Workers: Truck Drivers