Direct disconnect: how to solve the delivery driver shortage
It is no secret that delivery – both for food and retail – emerged as a big winner from the COVID-19 period. Despite the complications, uncertainties and overall difficulties many sectors faced during and following the pandemic, as we see life eventually return to normal, the delivery sector continues to boom. Simultaneously, we are witnessing an issue that may turn the tide on this victory, as delivery driver shortages mount. This problem has become increasingly prominent, especially as we approach highly popular periods for the delivery sector – such as Cyber Weekend, the busiest day of the retail year, Black Friday, and the overall Christmas period. This has brought doubts and fears for both consumers and retailers alike.
We have a booming industry, with increasingly rising pay rates and job security, and yet a lack of job seekers wanting to engage in it – how is that possible? The Road Haulage Association recently announced that the UK currently faces a shortage of 100,000 truck drivers. There is a direct disconnect. We have an in demand industry actively seeking drivers, yet shortages of them have and will continue to create issues down the line. RHA chief executive Richard Burnett in August informed Sky News that to train those 100,000 short drivers would take at least 18 months – in this timeframe a real threat has been posed. Many delivery firms simply may be unable to get the goods ordered to the shelves.
There are several long standing reasons for this problem but additionally we are facing a unique macro-environment that is elevating the issue. The current climate following COVID-19 and its subsequent restrictions, as well as the difficulties resulting from the Northern Ireland Protocol and Brexit, have created what may appear to be an unpredictable and unattractive sector for employment.
But it would be unfair and inaccurate to say this issue is purely due to uncertainties driven by Brexit and COVID-19. There have been underlying causes at play for years, prior to the current situation. In a report, Logistics Competencies, Skills, and Training A GLOBAL OVERVIEW, released prior to the pandemic kicking off in 2020, issues with employing drivers ranged from image worries to regulation. A long history of underinvestment in the logistics sector, and its staffing, can no longer be avoided and has only been amplified by the environment created by COVID and Brexit.
COVID-19 while creating a huge demand for delivery drivers somewhat limited the supply of them by two means. The restrictions and contact tracing systems created a lack of security feeling amongst workers. While The RHA has said that it was not simply the fear of a close contact notification that has created our current situation, by no means did it ease anxieties for drivers on the job. Additionally, restrictions caused widespread cancellations of driving lessons and tests, resulting in a lack of new drivers – people who may have been willing to enter the workforce but are ineligible presently for this profession.
While this has created concern for both retailers and consumers, it is the retailers and delivery service providers who have the power to improve the situation for their benefit. AI in warehousing has already begun to resolve issues of staff shortages and into the future, who is to say that this cannot be done for the driving for the crucial last mile delivery. There may be further and more tech driven, future-thinking solutions down the line but right now, what is needed is an immediate interim solution. We have to go back and revisit the very basics of treating employees fairly and as valued members of a team. Fair treatment of staff is the clearest way to incentivise people to move into available jobs in the sector. The demand is clearly for people and people respond best to feeling valued, security and fair payment. The creation of a positive environment for workers that overshadows the current uncertain landscape is the way to combat this problem.
Several months ago, it was revealed that Amazon drivers are subject to what many would agree to be harsh and unethical working conditions. While Amazon is now the US’s second largest employer, we have seen countless criticisms of their treatment of staff across the board, from warehouse worker complaints, discrimination cases and now reports of maltreatment of drivers. Reports show that Amazon has been aware of the conditions their delivery drivers work in – from lack of breaks reducing drivers to go to the toilet in bottles in their vans, to the installation of netradyne cameras to monitor drivers’ every movement via AI to report back to superiors.
With allegations such as these, it is easy to see why many may simply fear joining this professional lifestyle. Emphasis must be placed on relieving these worries and businesses bettering the environment that they create for all workers, but particularly drivers. Drivers are the backbone of the delivery process, and without them, many booming businesses may fall. Realizing the importance of delivery drivers, and acting on this, must be made a priority in any delivery business at present.
In recent weeks the UK government brought in a short term solution for the Christmas period, when we expect the driver shortage to be a factor in delays and stock shortages for retailers and consumers. Temporary visas can be issued to EU drivers to work over Christmas in the UK, and then return home. This almost exactly goes against the Brexit agreement signed, and such measures cannot go forward into the long-term.
This problem is spreading from the UK, and concerns are seeping into wider Europe – and the problem has existed in the US for quite some time now. A more long-term solution must be put into place regarding regulation and incentivization by governments – for now, interim solutions are what retailers must work with. Tech may be further down the line, but the drivers are the backbone of the delivery industry and this must be acknowledged.