UK scrambles for truckers amid supply woes

London, Sep 24 (AP):
In Britain, this is the season of shortages: Milkshakes were off the menu for weeks at McDonald’s, chicken has been in short supply at KFC, some gas stations have run out of fuel and there are gaps on supermarket shelves.
The problems have several causes, but one stands out: There just aren’t enough truck drivers. The UK is short tens of thousands of drivers, as factors including Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic converge to create a supply-chain crunch.
With the industry raising the spectre of Christmas shortages of turkeys and toys, the government is scrambling to lure more people into truck driving, long viewed as an underpaid and underappreciated job. Driving isn’t seen as a 21st-century sexy vocation, said Laurence Bolton, managing director of the National Driving Centre, a family-owned school for truck drivers in the London suburb of Croydon. But that is starting to change. Bolton’s school has seen a 20% increase in applicants since the UK’s pandemic restrictions eased earlier this year, with bus drivers, laid-off hospitality workers and even former airline pilots seeking to retrain as truckers, a suddenly in-demand and increasingly well-paid occupation.
It opens up the opportunities, said 31-year-old Stephen Thrower, who works as a van driver but is training on trucks. It’s more of a job for life. As a trainee trucker practiced reversing a huge rig between orange cones at the school’s asphalt lot, Bolton reeled off the ingredients that have made for a trucking crisis. Britain’s departure from the European Union prompted some European workers to head home. The British government closed a loophole that many drivers used to keep tax payments down. COVID-19 lockdowns halted driver testing for months, stopping the flow of new truckers.
Countries including the United States and Germany are also facing a driver shortage. But the UK’s problem has been worsened by Brexit. Britain’s full departure from the EU last year ended the right of the bloc’s citizens to live and work in the UK, making it harder for UK firms to employ the eastern European drivers that many had come to rely on. The pandemic also disrupted labour markets around the world, throwing millions of people at least temporarily out of work. An estimated 1.4 million Europeans left Britain for their home countries during the pandemic, often to be closer to family. It’s uncertain how many will return.
Britain’s trucking industry is lobbying for truck drivers to be added to the shortage occupation list, which would make it easier to recruit drivers from Europe. There are similar calls from Britain’s farming and food processing industries, which are short of fruit-pickers and meat-packers. The Conservative government has so far refused, saying British workers should be trained to fill the jobs.
We’ve continually allowed our domestic market to underperform by essentially having wages undercut by people coming in prepared to do the job for less, and in pretty bad conditions sometimes, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told lawmakers Wednesday. And that’s the wider picture that we’re determined to resolve.
In an attempt to ease the shortage, the government has extended the number of hours drivers can work each week, increased trucker testing and streamlined the training process.

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