There is no easy solution to the ‘driver skills shortage’ and it currently poses a clear and present danger to the efficacy of the Irish supply chain. There are a myriad of complex reasons for the shortage but to understand the possible solutions, we must first understand the problems.
Issues with operator compliance perpetuated by the driver resource shortage is distorting the driver retention and recruitment landscape. Drivers are enticed to move jobs at a growing frequency due to promise of cash in hand, fixed subsistence payment others are supplementing their income by moonlighting with other operators facilitated through working time and tachograph breaches. These issues are contributing to increased road safety risks (fatigue and lack of training in new roles) and unfair competition where compliant operators are finding it increasingly difficult to retain staff and operate within the regulatory boundaries. Fair competition mandates that those that break the laws of the land face consequences that deters them from non-compliant operations, and this must be supported through the judiciary.
Heavy Goods Vehicle Drivers are an essential element of a functioning supply chain. A sustainable supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the partnership approach must be pursued to support all links trade through these choppy waters. One link in the chain too often overlooked in terms of stature and importance are the professional truck drivers who have epitomised the supply chain resilience throughout the COVID pandemic.
In Ireland, road transport is the dominant mode of distribution of goods with over 141 million tonnes moved by road in 2020 [CSO]. According to the Department of Transport there are approximately 40,000 heavy goods vehicles over 3.5tonne gross vehicle weight. In the EU, road transport accounts for approximately 75% of the total inland freight transport (based on tonne-kilometres performed). However, in Ireland it is much higher at almost 99% due to the signiﬁcantly lower contribution of other modes of transport. Our reliance on truck drivers is not reflected in the status this profession has within the supply chain or in the public domain and must be challenged.
In 2019, Dr Chao Ji-Hyland and Declan Allen from School of Management, College of Business, Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin), published their research study titled ‘What do professional drivers think about their profession? An examination of factors contributing to the driver shortage’. They found that key issues for drivers were pay and conditions, long working hours but more tellingly was the unfavourable views held by the public towards drivers and the consensus that drivers need to be treated with more respect and dignity.
Tangible proof of the implications of resource shortages in the logistics sector is evidenced in Britain where significant disruption to supply chains has occurred, with reports that Nandos have had to close 50 stores due to a lack of supply of chicken. The ‘Ever Given’, a super freight carrier that went to ground in the Suez Canal in March, demonstrates the fragility of the global supply chain. When delays are encountered, they have a domino effect that takes a long time to recover from. The Ever Given docked in Felixstowe in early August having offloaded the majority of its 18,000 containers in Rotterdam, 4 months behind schedule, only for the final delivery of the containers to be further delayed due to the lack of haulage services and drivers, some of which are destined for Ireland.
The transport and logistics sector has been less successful than others in recruiting younger workers over the years due to many factors including a perception that it is made up of predominantly low skilled jobs required to work long hours. The lack of diversity within the profession of driving is also telling. This perception must change! The importance of training and education to shaping the image of driving as a profession cannot be understated. The Freight Transport Association Ireland (FTAI) as the lead proposer and Sligo IT, the coordinating education and training provider, will launch a new 2-year Level 6 Commercial Driver Apprenticeship in January 2022. This is the first qualification on the national framework of qualifications linked with the profession of commercial driving. Apprentices will work, earn as you learn, while attending college one day per week and preparing to do their Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) driving test. This will deliver fully qualified drivers into the industry whilst supporting a progressive outreach to young people promoting the profession of driving to young men and women. This apprenticeship is industry led supported by the Higher Education Authority & Apprenticeship Ireland and demonstrates that industry when working collaboratively and supported by the State can deliver solutions for the skills shortage. All initiatives such as driver traineeships and the apprenticeships need the support of key stakeholders and employers within the industry to blossom. The Logistics & Supply Chain Skills Group chaired by the Department of Transport has the opportunity to promote the freight distribution and logistics sector including Commercial Driving as viable career choices.
Further supports for sharing the burden of the skills shortage within the supply chain through the revision of contracts, reassessment of delivery expectations and more consolidation of distribution services to maximise the load capacity of trucks that supports the haulage sector sustainability should be considered. Pay and conditions, adherence to the working time and tachograph regulations, focus on the roadworthiness of vehicles and training of staff all contribute to and shape the image and perception of drivers and their employers as a profession. To support fair competition investment by the State in the regulatory authorities such as the Road Safety Authority and An Garda Siochana Road Policing Division must be prioritised. Respect for Driving as a Profession needs to be prioritised within the supply chain and supported by the general public. The next time you come into contact with a truck driver, wave instead of shaking the fist, be considerate instead of impatient and consider that they are only doing their job the best they can!