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Driving ambition: UK wheels out measures to find new truckers

·3-min read

At the National Driving Centre school in a working-class suburb of south London, Alberto Almeida holds up a small certificate that says he has just passed his truck-driver test.

Soon, he could be on the road, helping to address a shortage of truckers that has led to empty supermarket shelves and delivery delays, stoking fears for Christmas and beyond.

"Smile Alberto, no more money to pay," his instructor jokes as he takes a picture of the 49-year-old electrician, who signed up for a change in career during the coronavirus lockdown.

"No, they've got to pay me, now," Almeida quips back, with a broad grin.

Britain is short of some 100,000 lorry drivers, according to the Road Haulage Association (RHA) industry body.

With shortages causing serious supply issues in Britain, truck drivers have become "real rock stars," said Laurence Bolton, director of the National Driving Centre in Croydon.

His switchboard has been going off non-stop since truck drivers hit the headlines.

The global shortage has been amplified in Britain by Brexit, which is preventing the return of eastern European drivers who were keeping the country supplied just a year ago.

Empty shelves in supermarkets have become a regular sight. Fast-food chain McDonald's has reported a lack of milkshakes, and some pubs a shortage of some types of beer.

At the same time, petrol stations last week ran dry as people panic bought over fears about the lack of tanker drivers.

- New recruits -

Trucks from supermarket giants such as Tesco are adorned with invitations to join their teams and some companies are offering to pay for training.

The government is also stepping up measures to solve the problem.

Drivers can now drive longer hours, and licence-holders who have left the industry have been sent letters urging them to return, and Britain will grant 10,500 temporary work visas to address labour shortages before Christmas.

As a stop-gap, some 200 soldiers will deliver fuel to filling stations from Monday to try to ease long queues that have built up across the country.

Some of the measures arouse scepticism at the testing centre, particularly the relaxation of rules meaning drivers can immediately drive the heaviest vehicles, without first having to learn the trade in a smaller truck.

"You see yourself going from a car to a monster like that?" asked Bolton, pointing to a gigantic 10-tonne truck.

One of his instructors, Andrew Hawes believes that road safety could suffer, but they both welcome the new interest in the industry, which is attracting new types of recruits.

"There have been five or six airplane pilots this year, who are afraid of being laid off" with the drop in air traffic, explained Bolton.

Hawes, a former truck driver himself, says he shares with his students his experiences of a "hard and solitary life" on the road.

- Controversial visas -

When he was working as a driver "15 or 20 years ago, the wages weren't too bad, but they haven't followed other businesses or inflation," he explained.

Meanwhile, prices for job essentials such as rooms in truck stops have sky-rocketed, he added.

Almeida, licence in his pocket, doesn't plan to hit the road just yet, as he can still earn more as an electrician.

"If you make me a good offer, a good package, yes, but it's not there," he said.

"Brexit showed something, no one wants to be on the road," he added.

The emergency visas granted by the government in late September to bring back those drivers prepared to accept lower wages and tough conditions have received a mixed response.

The Unite trade union slammed the government, which campaigned to end free movement from EU countries during Brexit, for "propping up a broken and exploitative system".

"We could have stayed in the EU and improved pay and conditions... we could have left the EU and improved pay and conditions," the Financial Times added in an editorial.

It called the visa move, which has triggered similar calls from other sectors suffering staffing shortages, a "symptom of government failure".

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