Deeper Issues At Heart Of Driver Shortage As Crisis Sets To Intensify

The disruption highlights longstanding recruitment difficulties plus food pricing concerns, and may worsen as consumer demand rises this summer.

Real solutions are needed to resolve the current shortage of delivery drivers in the UK. That is the consensus of representatives from the fresh produce supply chain, who point out that this crisis has long been on the cards, while the further easing of lockdown restrictions, plus increased staycationing this summer, will intensify pressure on the transport of domestic and imported produce.

Recruitment Difficulties

Covid, Brexit, the introduction of IR35 tax rule changes and a lack of driver training and testing during the pandemic have been blamed for the current crisis but widespread labour difficulties have been building for some time throughout the produce industry, including recruiting and retaining delivery drivers.

Nigel Jenney, CEO of the Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC)

“This is a combination of factors beyond the produce industry’s control,” Nigel Jenney, CEO of the Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) tells PBUK. “The lack of HGV drivers has hit the headlines but the shortage is across the board. We are desperately short of people in many areas – from growing the crops to packing and distribution. All of these people play a critical role, and if any part of the supply chain fails, the whole chain fails.”

The average daily staff shortfall for produce businesses is 10-25 per cent, according to Jenney. “This is all day, every day and it is simply not sustainable,” he stresses. “No business can operate with those shortfalls. It drives up inefficiencies, costs and, frankly, food waste, which has increased tremendously in recent weeks. The Government cannot assume that the industry can keep on delivering. We need real, effective solutions.”

With many European workers having returned home due to Covid and Brexit, reportedly the Government is insisting that: “Employers should focus on investing in our domestic workforce, especially those needing to find new employment, rather than relying on labour from abroad”.

However, that is easier said than done, especially for picking, packing and delivery jobs. Dan McCullough, owner of First Choice Produce, a wholesale supplier of fine foods to leading hotels and restaurants in London and the Home Counties, has struggled to employ domestic drivers and packers.

“All of my drivers are from Europe,” he says. “I cannot employ an English person to do a delivery or packing job; they don’t turn up for the interview. We don’t even operate heavy goods vehicles; we operate light vans, so drivers can use a normal license.”

McCullough feels strongly that there is a lack of incentive for the unemployed to work. “It aggravates me when you hear about labour shortages and yet there are 2.6m people unemployed.

"At the moment, there’s no incentive to work. The Government needs to make it as easy as possible for able people to come back to work, either in the public or private sector, and possibly with a subsidy. Instead of the Government paying unemployment benefits, they should pay employers to top-up their workers’ salaries, for example.”

Jason Tanner, owner of foodservice provider Premier Fruits, does employ a large percentage of UK drivers within his workforce but he agrees that attracting domestic recruits is not easy.

“For the most part we need night-time deliveries, and for a lot of drivers they would rather have a day-time job,” Tanner explains. “It’s extremely difficult, and it’s not just a problem with HGV drivers but also the normal 3.5 tonne truck drivers. We’re short of around 25-30 drivers, and we’re using agency drivers for probably 50 per cent of our labour.”

The career does need to be made more attractive, says Wayne Lawlor, who handles sales and procurement at DG Imports, a long-established fresh produce import company.

“Companies could offer drivers a flexitime contract to work three nights on and three nights off, instead of six consecutive days,” he suggests. “Companies would have to employ more drivers but they would have more flexibility. More people want a work-life balance these days, and if employers make jobs more appealing via tax, holiday and flexitime incentives there are plenty of people out there to work. Of course, there are many deeper, underlying problems which will be harder to correct but this is a good starting point.”

Compared with Europe, Lawlor also notes that there is a low number of female drivers in the UK, plus he says specialist rest, food and servicing areas are inferior. “Vast improvements are another essential going forward,” he states.

Jenney at FPC would like to see more Government schemes to encourage people to work in the produce industry given that businesses have been promoting actively their benefits, company lifestyle and worker support for many years already but have not had the adequate response.

And while the Government has introduced the Seasonal Workers Scheme for pickers, Jenney says it has “ignored” the need for labour beyond the farm gate. “The Government says the labour challenge is on the farm but it’s elsewhere too,” he says. “You cannot automate many areas of the food production process, plus the costs are too high for many businesses. At the moment, the situation has been left almost for the industry to resolve itself.”

Pricing Problem

Another crux of the problem is the price that UK retailers pay for fresh produce, according to Lawlor from DG Imports. “For years costs have risen for drivers, transportation, refrigeration, staff etc. but the price of produce is more or less the same because the mentality is stuck in the doldrums,” he states. “Sooner or later this needs to change – the supermarkets can’t go on like this because it isn’t fair.

“As I understand, in Germany there is a system whereby retailers can’t sell food for less than what it costs to produce and supply. In the UK, the retailers are too busy fighting each other. The prices of many products are being squeezed – produce, meat, milk – and by the time the growers and farmers are paid there is not a lot left.”

Added to that, Lawlor says the UK has slipped from its position as a first-choice export market to a destination for cheaper fruit and vegetables. “We’re becoming a dumping ground as emerging markets develop. Producers are supplying their first-, second- and third-choice markets and the UK is receiving what is left.

“Everyone is hiding behind Covid but the bigger issue was there long before this [driver shortage]. “Volumes on trucks has been doing down and costs have risen. Covid, Brexit, rule changes and labour shortages have only made it more difficult for the transport business.

"The current driver shortage is highlighting a small part of a bigger problem, and something needs to be done.”

Worse To Come