View from Brussels: The Great Trucker Shortage

Europe’s trucking industry needs drivers and in the UK that shortage could hit even harder thanks to Brexit.

According to a new study by the International Road Transport Union (IRU), published last week, one in five European truck driver jobs is vacant.

The IRU found through polling hauliers and drivers themselves that 21 per cent of jobs in the road freight sector are unfilled, while 19 per cent of bus and coach driver gigs are going begging.

Working conditions, time spent on the road and the profession’s negative image were cited by drivers among the main reasons why the industry is failing to attract new blood. Failures in making driver jobs appealing to women and young people were also mentioned.

The average age of the continent’s truckers is 44 years old, so looming retirements and defections to the passenger sector, where conditions are generally more appealing, mean freight transport faces a ticking clock.

There is also legislative uncertainty, as an EU law meant to cut carbon dioxide emissions and improve infrastructure management has been widely criticised by trucking industries, particularly from the bloc’s eastern members.

New rules mean truckers should not spend their mandatory rest breaks inside their vehicles and should return to their countries of origin every four weeks for at least 20 days.

Bulgarian and Polish companies in particular have accused the EU of trying to squeeze them out of the market and have even dubbed it ‘Macron’s law’ to show that they hold France’s president responsible for the developments.

If all these problems are not addressed, the IRU estimates that the shortage could spiral to 40 per cent.

The haulier group’s managing director, Boris Blanche, said in a statement that if “left unchecked, it will have serious implications for the European economy and lead to rising costs for businesses, consumers and passengers”.

Although the IRU acknowledges that the problem is a complex one to solve, as part of its study it suggested a number of measures that could make trucking an appealing prospect.

They include educational awareness programmes in schools and universities, as well as setting up a ‘Women in Transport Network’ and giving out awards to best female drivers and the companies that succeed in boosting recruitment.

In the EU-departing United Kingdom, the issue could have an even more significant impact given the sector’s reliance on mainland Europe-based drivers, particularly from Central and Eastern Europe. 

Britain already ranks among the most problematic countries when it comes to the driver shortage, as the IRU estimates that the problem is growing by 50 unfilled positions per day.

If the UK does indeed leave the EU, whether with an agreement in May or without one in April, the shortage is predicted to get worse, although a so-called no-deal scenario is likely to exacerbate it to an even greater extent.

Boris Blanche said that if the UK makes it difficult for drivers from Poland and Romania in particular, then the shortage will become more “acute”.

On Monday (25 March), the UK will step up its Brexit-planning again, with the launch of Operation Brock, a truck-focused exercise along the M20 motorway that leads to the all-important Port of Dover.

Transport experts have warned that significant delays at the Channel crossing, thanks to leaving the EU without a deal, could lead to chaos.

That is why Operation Brock will see one side of the M20 closed to non-freight traffic, in order to try and replicate what would happen if thousands of trucks have to queue along the motorway.

The government insists that 11,000 vehicles could be queued along the road and has made an abandoned airfield available in case an emergency parking area is needed.

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