UK gas shortages reveal vital new workers: truck drivers

LONDON – For more than three decades, David Carden traversed the Midlands to England, carrying tens of thousands of gallons of fuel from storage tanks to gas stations. The flammable liquid made him dangerous work requiring skill and caution, but when he started the pay and benefits were good, allowing him to support his young family.

Gradually, conditions deteriorated for the drivers. Hours have grown longer, roadside facilities have deteriorated and services have been reduced.

“In the end,” said Carden, “we lost a lot of what was worth doing.

In 2017, he resigned.

Today, as a severe shortage of truck drivers has caused gas pumps to run out across the country and disrupt the lives of thousands, the British and their leaders in Parliament are delivering a plaintive message: We have need you.

The government is sending a letter to nearly a million people with heavy truck driving licenses, urging them to get back on the road. And it is easing visa restrictions for thousands of foreign workers, hoping to lure them into temporary work in Britain.

But the government might find few people accepting the offers. Mr. Carden, 57, was firm in his resolve: “There’s no way I’m going back to this industry.

His disillusionment underscores the daunting challenges facing the industry. Tens of thousands of European Union drivers have left the country – largely because Brexit made it clear they were not wanted – and potential drivers were unable to pass their qualifying tests for more than a year due to the pandemic. Long dominated by men, the driver industry has done little to add women to its ranks.

As a result, Britain is short of up to 100,000 truck drivers, according to the Road Haulage Association.

For truckers who have long felt underestimated and increasingly stressed by difficult working conditions, lower wages and neglected truck stops, the fact that employers struggled to find workers was no big deal. surprise.

“People don’t think about truck drivers until things go wrong,” said Robert Booth, 50, a driver from Dover on England’s south coast.

And a lot went wrong this week: People lined up long for gasoline, and some stations placed limits on how much fuel they could fill. Others just couldn’t get to work because they didn’t have gasoline or because traffic had built up around stations, clogging the roads. Some companies, such as taxis and private ambulances, have cut back on their services.

The government has put the military on hold and said on Thursday some military personnel would start helping deliver fuel in the coming days.

The emergence of long-neglected drivers as an essential cog in the national economy is reminiscent of the first year of the pandemic. Workers who had been seen as low-skilled and poorly paid – many of whom were migrants – captured the nation’s attention and gained new respect. Across Britain, people have come out on their doorsteps to applaud the workers at the National Health Service. Supermarket assistants and public transport workers were no longer invisible and featured on the covers of publications like British Vogue.

Now truck drivers are heard and recruited – so much so that Prime Minister Boris Johnson overturned his post-Brexit immigration rules when he approved the issuance of five thousand temporary visas for foreign drivers until the end of the year.

But the industry is warning that it is probably too little too late while awaiting details.

“On the one hand, this is what we have asked the government to do,” said Rod McKenzie, chief policy officer for the Road Haulage Association, which is pushing for looser visa restrictions and twice as many. temporary visas. “But three months is a very short time for people to quit an existing job. It will hardly scratch the surface.

Some drivers might be drawn to higher wages and bonuses, but there are no quick fixes to this problem that has been brewing for years. Brexit has turned drivers away from the European Union who can now find good pay and better road facilities on the continent, where driver shortages in countries like Poland and Germany are just as severe, if not worse.

There is a huge backlog of driving exams in Britain, training is expensive and the industry has failed to attract a young workforce. The average age of a truck driver is around 50, and many letters from the government will go through the doors of people who have retired or held leadership positions, McKenzie said.

“This is not a group of a hundred thousand people who will suddenly answer the call and take up arms again,” McKenzie said. “We will have a few, I hope. But there is no quick fix here.

Mr Carden quit driving a tanker about four years ago after that job was taken over by a large logistics company and there was more pressure to make faster deliveries. He now drives a van for a family business.

Amid stiff competition for skilled truck drivers, some tanker drivers have moved on to well-paying jobs making less dangerous deliveries. When Mr Carden left, he said many of his peers also quit around the same time.

“They are wondering ‘Why should I drive a 44,000 liter bomb when I can get the same money to deliver boxes of crisps to the supermarket?’ Mr. Carden said.

“The general public did not like this industry and neither did the government,” he added. “Drivers will spend nights away from home and the facilities available to them are probably the poorest in Europe.

Conditions at truck stops are frequently cited as a reason why more people, especially women, do not want to join the industry. Mr. Booth, the driver from Dover, is a so-called trampeur – he picks up and drops off building materials from long distances. He’s usually on the road for five days at a time, and although the hours are grueling, he said he enjoys the sense of adventure. “Let’s be honest, we all still feel like an 8 year old who wants to drive big trucks,” he said.

But the industry has overlooked the realities of life on the road for drivers, he said. At stops, there are often dirty showers, not enough toilets and a lack of security. It can be difficult to find decent meals. Mr. Booth has a dedicated Facebook page for documenting the healthy meals he cooks on the go.

“The industry itself took it for granted that we had cheaper labor from overseas,” he said.

Convincing European workers to return to Britain will be difficult as drivers have been abused and discriminated against, said Tomasz Orynski, 41, who drives trucks part-time in Scotland. He left Poland for Great Britain in 2005, but intends to return to the European Union soon.

“You are told all the time how much of a burden you are on this country,” he said, referring to Britain. “All this while wages had stagnated for a decade or more. So what are you doing? You pack your bags and return to your country which, over all these years, has developed rapidly.

Even if some drivers decide to get temporary visas in Britain, they are unlikely to work for the available three months as recruiting and relocation could take weeks. For the past seven years, Emil Gerasimov, Head of Driving at Ideal Recruit, has brought in drivers from abroad, particularly from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. Temporary visas are unlikely to provide much relief.

“Why would they leave a secure job in Europe to work here for three months? ” he said.

Near Heathrow Airport in London, Steve Bowles runs Roy Bowles Transport, which transports goods. The company is named after his father who started the business in the 1950s. He has around 40 vehicles and only moves goods within a 50 mile radius of the airport, which means that some of the more difficult aspects of the job, such as long nights on the road, are avoided.

Like many businesses, Mr Bowles raised salaries for his staff, but said he still lacked the number of drivers he needed by around 20%. And the agency’s hiring costs have gone up “through the roof,” he lamented.

“It’s very frustrating,” he says. “This is our busiest time of year and it restricts this activity. “

Mr. Bowles drove the trucks himself before taking over the business with his sister. He too may soon receive a letter from the government asking him to resume driving. But at 67 with health problems, he has no plans to get behind the wheel again.

“I’m not going to drive,” he said. “If I can’t get the job done with my drivers, what’s the point of going out and leaving the office unattended?” “

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