Images of gas stations jammed with absurdly long lines of cars flooded social media just a few weeks ago. For an onlooker unfamiliar with the situation, it appeared as though a natural disaster was just hours away, and people were desperately trying to fill their cars and evacuate. That, however, was not the case, and this “panic buying” of fuel heavily contributed to further shortages.
Currently, gas stations in London and other parts of Britain are struggling to maintain a steady fuel supply for consumers. But unlike the global energy crisis of the 1970s, the current fuel shortage is primarily due to a growing lack of trained drivers, not a lack of available fuel. And this shortage is not just affecting fuel supply; restaurants and groceries stores aren’t able to obtain food or stock shelves.
The Road Haulage Association, a trade association of road transport operators, estimates that Britain lacks around 100,000 drivers needed to keep their economy moving forward. And the solution is not as simple as just hiring more drivers.
When we think of truck drivers, an image of an older man pops into mind. And for the most part, yes, truck drivers do tend to be older men. Haulage companies say the average age of HGV drivers in the UK is 55. But now, those older men are retiring or have moved out of the EU altogether, and any young and hopeful new drivers are hitting roadblock after roadblock while trying to get licensed for work due to the pandemic. Additionally, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union has further exacerbated labor shortages, thanks to a referendum that signaled it would impose limits on immigration. These limits have made it nearly impossible for companies to hire drivers overseas.
Today, there are 30,000 fewer truck drivers in the U.K. than there were just one year ago.
According to data collected by Transport Intelligence, Poland was short of more than 120,000 drivers last year, while in Germanyup to 60,000 drivers were needed. Drivers have several reasons for leaving the industry, including long hours away from home and poor roadside facility conditions. Those same reasons serve as a major deterrent for attracting new drivers.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson denied that Brexit is the cause of driver shortages, and instead, placed blame on the trucking industry for underinvesting in things like salaries, truck stops, and overall conditions. But experts say that Britain’s exit from the EU shrunk the labor market, and the Road Haulage Association reported that of the shortage of 100,000 drivers, 20 percent left after the U.K. voted to leave the European Union.
Unfortunately, we take the privilege of having access to what we need for granted without recognizing what it takes, or the people involved, to get supplies from point A to B. For whatever reason, we assume that someone else is taking care of the matter. In this case, we assumed there would always be ample truck drivers ready for work when in reality, applications for such jobs have been dwindling for years. And because of the pandemic, driving test centers had to close, leaving thousands of potential drivers stuck without a way to qualify for work.
The U.K.’s fuel crisis is the most visible impact of the driver shortage, and with the holidays right around the corner, there’s a race to fill those empty truck seats. In recent weeks the government has moved to grant temporary visas for up to 5,000 overseas drivers, extending their duration until the end of February. But only dozens of visas have been approved so far.
The Ministry of Defense examiners are allowing more foreign workers into the U.K. and are offering free intensive ‘boot camps’ to train 5,000 people to become HGV drivers, with an additional 1,000 to be trained through courses funded by the adult education budget. To further their efforts, the government is writing to nearly one million drivers who already hold an HGV license to encourage them to come back to the industry.
In the event the situation worsens, the military is on standby. The government’s reserve tanker fleet is delivering fuel to help ease the shortage, and there are already signs the situation is improving.