UK Visa Plan Will Not Fix Lorry Driver Shortage, says boss

Plans to offer temporary visas to foreign lorry drivers will not make a big difference to the UK’s skills shortage, the boss of one of Europe’s biggest goods vehicle firms has said.

There was no longer an “endless amount of labour” in eastern Europe looking for such jobs, said Jens Romer Sode, chief operating officer of Girteka.

He told the BBC that higher salaries alone would not solve the crisis.

More had to be done to make lorry driving an attractive career, he said.

On Saturday, the UK government announced measures to give temporary visas, lasting until Christmas Eve, to 5,000 fuel tanker and food lorry drivers and 5,500 poultry workers in a bid to limit disruption in the build-up to Christmas.

Freight industry group Logistics UK told the BBC that it was expecting the policy to be “driven by wages”.

It’s estimated that the UK needs about 100,000 HGV drivers – with existing shortages made worse by the pandemic, tax changes, Brexit, an ageing workforce, low wages and poor working conditions.

The scarcity of lorry drivers is not a new problem, but the effects of recent shortages have disrupted the supply chains of businesses and led to customers finding some items unavailable in supermarkets and shops.

Girteka’s Mr Sode said short-term visas and getting work for higher pay in the UK could be “tempting” for foreign drivers.

But he added: “Competing on drivers’ salaries and talent attractiveness alone, I do not think will make a big difference.”

He said: “Paying fair and good salaries of course is part of what every good trucking company, including Girteka, will and must do.

“But I think the longevity of employment and ease of doing business is equally important.”

Challenges everywhere

Lithuania-based Girteka is one of the largest operators of goods vehicles in Europe, with about 8,000 lorries.

The company plans to hire about 7,000 new drivers this year, saying that more of them are needed per vehicle, so that workers can spend more time at home.

Mr Sode said time was needed to ramp up the number of drivers and train them properly: “It’s not really something that is done in a heartbeat.”

He added that the shortage of lorry drivers was not just a UK problem, but was affecting other European countries too.

“We employ drivers in Lithuania, but just as many in Poland, Norway, Denmark and Germany, and we see the challenges everywhere.”

Survey findings about why there are driver shortages

Mr Sode said some eastern European countries used to have “an endless amount of labour looking for this type of job, but that has definitely changed”.

He said improving conditions for entrants to the job was now important.

“For the industry, it’s very very key that either we make this attractive as a workplace and as a career again or we will face more and more of these bottlenecks.”

Big step

Logistics UK’s director of policy, Elizabeth de Jong, told the BBC that the short-term visa plan was “a big step for government”.

“We’re expecting it to be driven by wages, there’s some very compelling packages around and [terms and conditions] as well.

“We know that many [HGV drivers] went back to Europe because of the value of the pound, so we’re hoping pay will matter.”

Ms de Jong said it was “very hard to disentangle” the twin effects of Brexit and Covid on the driver shortage.

“Testing, training and that short-term visa are all part of that solution. Longer-term, it’s improving facilities and parking spaces to make the whole industry more attractive,” she added.

Union representatives have expressed scepticism about the government’s plan, calling it a short-term approach to a long-term problem.

Livia Spera, general secretary of the European Transport Workers’ Federation, told the BBC: “There’s a shortage of drivers everywhere, not just in the UK, so I doubt that in this moment, it would be very attractive for drivers to go to the UK. “

She added: “If you want to solve the problem, you need to have structural solutions, like improving the working conditions of drivers.”