Colin Brazier: We need to pay our HGV drivers more

'Importing drivers is a panacea'

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A few years ago a friend invited me and my young son to spend an hour or two in his combine harvester as it worked its way through a wheat crop in late summer.

It was lovely.

Alongside the combine was a tractor driven by a man in his early 20s.

For someone like me, who yearns to give all this up to spend my days on a farm, it looked like very heaven.

But the tractor driver was chucking it in.

Why?

Because, when you’re that age, do you really want to spend all day sitting alone in a cab?

For tractors read lorries.

One of the reasons there were queues forming at petrol stations today, is because we are struggling to recruit young men and women who are willing to do a job that enforces so much solitude.But it’s not just the isolation is it.

There are lots of other reasons.

And the more I read about them, the guiltier I feel.

As a commuter I’ve spent years sharing the roads with lorry drivers, and enjoying the fruits of their labours.

But I’ve never really tried to understand what their job entails.

Until now.

Those queues at petrol stations this morning - and the empty shelves in supermarkets this week – are a wake-up call for everyone who thought that the only thing that matters in a knowledge economy is a degree and a profile on LinkedIn.

Because it turns out, doesn’t it, that we can’t do without lorry drivers.

But what we can do is try harder to understand what it is they do, how they do it, and how we can make the job more attractive to new entrants.

We can’t solve the isolation, that is simply part of the warp and weft of trucking, but haulage companies can improve conditions in the cab, where often there is no air-conditioning or a toilet or fridge.

These aren’t luxuries if you’re having to live and sleep in a truck, as many drivers do.

But this isn’t a story about conditions.

It’s more a story about pay.

Would you stump-up £4000 to train from scratch as a lorry driver, only to earn £12 an hour working for an agency?

You’d be self employed, with irregular hours and sometimes no holiday pay or pension.

In time you could earn more. Become a specialist hazardous material driver, for instance. Or work nights and weekends perhaps. Maybe do long haul driving, which has its own headaches, making sure illegal migrants aren’t trying to smuggle themselves into your lorry at English Channel ports, for instance.

Why are we 100,000 lorry drivers short of what’s needed?

A lot of truckers used to come from the Army, where they’d been taught to drive HGVs.

But, as our Army has shrunk, that supply has dwindled with it.

Many people will point to Brexit and say that emergency measures to allow thousands of drivers from Continental Europe are what’s needed.

But this undermines what it is to be a British lorry driver, to understand the roads, the signs, the routes and yes, the language when you breakdown or get lost.

Importing drivers is a panacea.

And it seems to be something which, to his great credit our Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng understands. He’s reportedly arguing against those in Cabinet who want to fill those 100,000 vacancies with foreign drivers.

As a Brexiteer Kwasi Kwarteng understands that this is a once in a generation opportunity to recalibrate the scales of supply and demand, to allow the market to set a new – and yes, higher – price for driving a lorry.

That won’t happen if we allow big business off the hook again – by allowing them to undercut our nationals by importing cheap labour from abroad.

There will be short term pain — empty shelves and petrol station queues — but the long term gain is the fulfilment of the promise of Brexit.

A belated recognition that we will have to start paying those British drivers, who we’ve paid too little, and taken for granted for too long, an honest wage.