The government's new points-based immigration system is currently earning zero points from the commercial fleet industry. In fact, both the Freight Transport Association (FTA) and the Road Haulage Association (RHA) have warned the government that the policy could lead to the chain seizing up.
HGV drivers are already in short supply
According to Logistics UK's sixth Logistics Performance Tracker, HGV drivers are now harder to find than mechanics. This claim is supported by the UK Labour Market statistics published by the ONS, which show that in September 2020, only 130 HGV drivers were claiming Jobseeker's Allowance. That's down 21.2% from September 2019.
At the same time, demand has risen. ONS data also shows that online job adverts related to transport, logistics and warehouse are running at 75% above average. This is at a time when general online job adverts are running at 66% of normal levels.
Admittedly some of this will be due to Christmas. Some of it will also be due to pandemic-related shopping habits. That said, there has long been a growing trend towards increased online shopping (and corresponding home deliveries). Therefore it's entirely possible that this demand will continue long after the pandemic.
Immigration versus education
From 1st January 2021, HGV drivers will be classed as "low-skilled". This is a debatable point. It would, however, be irrelevant if the government made special provisions for them as it is doing with agricultural workers. As it stands, however, the commercial fleet industry will be forced to recruit from a non-existent UK labour pool.
According to the government, the solution is to train new drivers in the UK. This is a great idea, in theory. There are, however, two problems with it. Firstly, it takes time to train an HGV driver, so training newcomers to the profession will not help now.
Secondly, and at least as importantly, it costs money to train an HGV driver. Even though the industry is facing unprecedented demand, margins are still tight, as in 1%-2%. Companies therefore simply cannot afford to train large numbers of drivers, especially if they then go on to leave at first opportunity, e.g. to become self-employed.
A route forward?
In principle, apprenticeships could be a way out of this bind. In practice, however, apprenticeships, as currently structured, are simply not working for the fleet industry.
According to Richard Burnett of the RHA: "Since its inception in 2017, hauliers have invested £320m into the apprenticeship levy, yet only £20m has been withdrawn. It's just not working. It's a tax on our industry."
To be fair, the government is starting to make moves to address this. It has provided a grant of £1M to the Road to Logistics scheme run by the RHA and telematics company Microlise. This aims to reach out to people who might struggle to get a job and guide them on the path to a career in logistics.
Facing the consequences of inaction
Rhetoric about "taking back control of our borders" may sound good on social media. In the real world, however, the reality is that the UK relies on the commercial fleet industry to move its essential supplies from A to B. Without government action, however, that movement may come to a standstill.