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The current distribution crisis…

Diane Hall


distribution centre working pushing a cart

There have been food shortages and gaps on supermarket shelves for some weeks now, and whilst there are a few reasons for this, one of them isn’t a recent problem, but an issue that’s been developing over the last few decades.

A shortage of HGV drivers is resulting in stock sat in warehouses when it should be on sale, and deliveries from overseas getting stuck in the distribution system.

The haulage and food distribution industries haven’t seen many young people wanting to work in these sectors during the last few decades. This needs to happen in every industry, to replace workers at the other end who are ready to retire.

My other half maintains HGVs for a living and, throughout the last twenty years, whichever company he has worked for, he knows the majority of the workforce on day one—as it’s the same pool of people moving around different companies in the area.

Go back forty years, when he left school…there simply wasn’t the choice open to many working-class men (no woman would have thought about going into this industry back then, though you do see some female drivers nowadays) to do anything they like or be anything they want to be, like today’s school-leavers are told. His choices were: go into the construction industry, be a mechanic, or go down the pit (he was glad he didn’t choose the latter, like some of his peers, who were thrown from their fledgling careers a few years later, thanks to Margaret Thatcher).

There are so many careers to choose from nowadays. And, as a result, what kid would want to do a heavy, dirty job, like being a mechanic on huge trucks and wagons, when they could design video games or become a YouTube influencer?

There’s been nothing done to entice people into his trade. The rate of pay (as with most other sectors) has remained static for many years, and it’s only now, because people are having to do without produce that’s normally available all year round, that the powers that be see it as any kind of issue.

Uk Lorry at a stand still, parked in a bay.

Uk Lorry at a stand still, parked in a bay.

The thing is, and I’m not being facetious, all the people in my husband’s industry (and HGV drivers, too, as he mixes with these workers continually) are older men and women. In the next fifteen to twenty years, they’re all going to retire. And then the UK will really have a problem on its hands.

It takes a good few years for an apprentice to learn the ropes and get up to speed with the different engines and their technology, so the issue needs tackling sooner rather than later. There needs to be recruitment drives, pay incentives and industry support.

Another issue HGV drivers have faced recently is the desertion of EU workers from the industry, after many returned home following Brexit. ParcelHero recently published a report based on government figures and found that there’s a current shortage of 70,000 drivers across the UK. The current issue of having to isolate when the Track and Trace app pings has also had a huge impact on the remaining HGV drivers and workers in the food distribution industries.

The general public don’t really think about where their food comes from until it’s not there, but this situation will only happen again and again without some serious action to attract more workers in the industry. In my husband’s case, his employer is offering double time for hours worked over their normal shifts, as there’s so much work at the moment to keep the few lorries able to be driven on the road. However, this is only a sticking plaster approach to the solution. It won’t be long before already-scarce HGV fitters and drivers are burnt out from overwork; they may even be forced to take their retirement earlier than planned as a result, which is not the outcome anyone wants.

In a few months, EU workers may decide to return to driving HGVs in the UK on visas, once Brexit firmly settles down. The stock currently stuck in warehouses will have found its destination, but the issue that is thirty years of no young blood coming into the industry…well, that’s going to take some serious work to remedy.

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