The UK is facing a fuel shortage, and whilst the worst of it appears to be over, the southeast of England in particular is continuing to face queues, limits, and shutdowns at fuel pumps. Whilst these recent dramatic scenes, reminiscent perhaps of the ’70s OPEC crisis or Soviet Bloc bread lines, can be significantly attributed to media-induced panic and animal spirits, the underlying cause for concern — the lack of heavy goods vehicle (HGV/lorry/truck) drivers leading to shortages in all manner of HGV deliveries, is grave indeed, and is a problem that may unfortunately prove very difficult to eliminate. The UK, and indeed the world as a whole, is not actually suffering a fuel shortage. Indeed, crude extraction and refinery production are very healthy. The issue lies in delivery and the severe dearth of drivers to perform this essential task.
HGV drivers, and the transport they carry out, are the lifeblood of our economy. The ability of trucks to perform point-to-point direct deliveries is unmatched by any other form of transport. Trains are cheap per tonne transported, but freight trains are slow and can only move goods among the limited set of destinations served by rail infrastructure. Aeroplanes have the same problem vis a vis airports, with the added issues of being relatively expensive and the amount of pollution produced per unit transported. Cargo ships, of course, can only travel where there is deep water. Without the continuous stream of HGV transport we take for granted in our country, as we are starting to discover, we would have no fuel in our cars, no food on our shelves, and no toilet paper in our bathrooms.
Despite having such a key role in our society and modern economy, HGV drivers are not afforded the respect and dignity they deserve. Imagine, if you will, a generic social gathering. Two men introduce themselves — one states he is a lawyer, the other a lorry driver. Let us also say that they are both asked to divulge their salaries, and the lorry driver makes significantly more than the lawyer annually. Despite this, you would likely imagine that the first individual, the lawyer, would be afforded more respect and status by the group, and for some difficult-to-describe reason considered “higher up” in the societal ladder.
Truly, we are in the vice-like grip of a hangover from a Victorian middle-class mindset. We carry this damaging idea that to achieve dignified status in life one should strive to follow a career we categorise as “professional” — a career made possible by a university degree. To go into a sector of “skilled labour,” such “dirty jobs” as HGV driving, welding, plumbing, bricklaying (all of which have increasing wages, ageing workforces, and a shortage of young recruits), seems under such a mindset to be strictly worse, a life less worth living, a life that, if you have the intellectual capacity to obtain a degree and work in an office thereafter instead, you should avoid.
Thus, HGV driving has experienced a disturbing lack of new young workers. The average age of an HGV driver has risen to 57. The problem is further exacerbated by other particulars of the job. Far from being widely praised in the media as our medical staff often are, lorry drivers are often portrayed in a less-than-favourable light. The Simpsons portrays them as lazy, being paid for doing nothing. Top Gear stereotypes them as prostitute-murderers. More widely, the profession has, through association with the CO2 pollution that diesel trucks produce, been cast into the pile of “enemies of the planet” by climate activists.
On top of this, it doesn’t help that lorry driving is actually hard, skilled work (as that Top Gear episode, to its credit, also acknowledges), and also entails a very disruptive lifestyle. Long, solitary hours on the road demanding unbreaking concentration, combined with nights spent away from home, from family, in the cramped cabin of a lorry in a service station. Increased hostility towards lorries from local authorities and relative lack of dedicated lorry infrastructure compared to other western countries like France and the USA does not help either. To top it all, the existential threat of self-driving technology means that any new entry to the industry risks becoming structurally unemployed halfway into their career. It is little wonder that so few young people are taking up lorry driving.
The short-term solution to the fuel crisis is to, as the government has made moves to do, draft in the army to assist with deliveries to ensure fuel reaches the pumps, and shore up public confidence to prevent damaging panic-buying. The short-term solution to the driver shortage, as, again, we are already seeing enacted, is to raise wages, thereby encouraging existing drivers to work more hours, and encouraging those individuals trained and licensed to drive HGVs currently working in other sectors to switch back into lorry driving. Enabling foreign drivers to come to the UK to work, even on a temporary basis, would likely help significantly also, as would cutting the red tape around obtaining an HGV license.
In the longer term, we need to change the way we think, lest we suffer further shortages in all areas of skilled, non-university degree-requiring labour. Local authorities ought to reconsider restrictions on lorry infrastructure in their areas. Most of all, though, we need to afford these roles the respect and dignity they deserve. After all, we depend on them utterly for our lifestyles to persist. Increasing wages should assist this, but more than that, an active effort is needed on many parts to show our appreciation where we have for far too long neglected to apply it.
Image: Wikimedia Commons