My late father wasn’t really known for catch phrases, but I do remember a couple of them. “Don’t do as I do, do as I say” comes to mind when I do something stupid, which is another way of saying that it comes to mind more often than it should. Then, when chaos ensues, I hear him saying, “Don’t panic, be British.”
But the British are panicking now.
To be precise, they’re panic buying. Consumers have recently been draining fuel islands dry, and are forming long lines at the pumps wherever supplies can be found. Government officials have responded with an array of announcements to help relieve the underlying truck driver shortage that’s responsible much of this mess.
Plans have been unveiled to train up to 4,000 new truck drivers of various classes, while Britain’s Department of Transport is promising to increase related testing capacity “by thousands” over the next three months, in part to address a testing backlog that emerged during Covid-19. The Defence Ministry will deploy driving examiners to help, and army drivers have been put on standby in case they’re needed to deliver emergency fuel.
About 1 million licence holders are also receiving a letter imploring them to return to jobs in trucking.
“Your valuable skills and experience have never been more needed than they are now,” says a joint letter from the minister for roads, buses and places, and executives with the Logistics U.K. and Road Haulage Association trade groups. They draw attention to improving pay, and more options for everything from flexible to part-time work.
“If you are no longer working in this sector, we would like to take this opportunity to ask you to consider returning.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Education will invest $17 million in “skills bootcamps” that offer free, intensive courses to train up to 3,000 people, while adult education budgets will help to cover the training of another 1,000 students in local courses.
One of the biggest reversals from the Brexit-focused government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a commitment to welcome another 5,000 truck drivers through visa channels, to keep shelves stocked in the months leading up to Christmas.
But these are, at best, short-term solutions.
“The industries must also play their part with working conditions continuing to improve and the deserved salary increases continuing to be maintained in order for companies to retain new drivers,” British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said in a related statement.
“Visas will not be the long-term solution, and reform with the industry is vital. That’s why the government continues to support the industry in solving this issue in the long term through improved testing and hiring, with better pay, working conditions and diversity.”
While Britain’s troubles seem to be a world away, the underlying issues will sound familiar to anyone in Canada’s trucking industry. And the panic buying that stripped shelves bare in the early days of Covid-19, and drained reservoirs of fuel during a temporary shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, serve as a reminder that supply chain challenges can quickly emerge here as well.
Just like its counterparts in Britain, Canada’s trucking industry needs to commit to lasting changes that involve improving working conditions and compensation, training and mentoring a new generation of drivers, and supporting immigration-related career paths.
All too often, fleets believe the answers are found simply by hiring drivers who already work elsewhere. One Quebec fleet manager told me of a competitor who hired girls to approach the fence surrounding the fleet yard, pitching recruiting messages like the sirens of Greek mythology who lured sailors to their demise. But the drivers soon learned that the promises about better working conditions were empty promises.
Without a commitment to lasting change, future recruits will turn to other career paths. Recruiters will not be able to find enough candidates to meet growing demand and replace retiring drivers. Even worse, the skilled and trained drivers within the workforce will simply leave and find other work to do.
Letter writing campaigns that beg such drivers to return will not be enough.
Now is not the time to panic. But it’s time to act.
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