Hauliers warn of 'acute shortage of drivers'

Morgan McLernon in Lurgan is among a number of haulage businesses across the north struggling to recruit drivers
Morgan McLernon in Lurgan is among a number of haulage businesses across the north struggling to recruit drivers

A CO Armagh firm has warned that an "acute shortage" of HGV lorry drivers in Northern Ireland will ultimately lead to consumers having to pay more in the shops for their goods.

Morgan McLernon says it is finding it "virtually impossible" to recruit the dozens of staff it needs.

Like many other haulier businesses across the north, it fears it may soon have to turn business away due to a lack of drivers.

And despite having organised its own driver academy to provide training to candidates wishing to enter the transport industry, the company claims politicians need to do more to help remove barriers which are preventing the industry from growing.

Stephen McAneney from Morgan McLernon, a road haulage company based at Silverwood in Lurgan specialising in chilled and frozen distribution across Ireland, Britain and Europe, says he needs to add 40 drivers to the firm's current 250-strong crew - but can't fill the posts, despite drivers potentially clearing £500 a week.

"The Road Haulage Association says it is short of 60,000 drivers, with an ageing workforce shedding another 40,000 by next year, and the industry isn't attracting younger people into HGV driving," he said.

This is due to the high costs of gaining an licence (up to £5,000 a driver) and companies, especially small firms, being reluctant to take drivers with less than 12 months’ commercial driving experience because of the additional insurance costs that apply to these and younger drivers.

"This isn't a problem unique to us. Virtually every haulier has a similar story to tell," he added.

"In simple terms, if hauliers haven't got the drivers to move produce, there will be less on the supermarket shelves, and in turn that will lead to prices going up.

He added: "What we need right now is some sort of apprenticeship scheme which gives a new generation of young drivers, those aged from 17 to 25, the opportunity to forge a career in this sector," McAneney added.

"But not having a working Stormont isn't helping, and our trade is suffering as a result."

The industry is also failing to attract or retain foreign nationals as drivers, given the complexities and fears around Brexit and the relative weakness of the UK's economy.

Indeed one Northern Ireland firm told the Irish News: "Last year we employed 12 Hungarian drivers. They all went home for Christmas, but only four came back. They weighed up all their financial options and felt it was better to stay put."

Hauliers are also being separately penalised through having to pay an Apprentice Levy, even though is virtually impossible for them to take on apprentices (in the case of Morgan McLernon,it is understood to be in the region of £30,000 a year).

The Road Haulage Association has already presented its case to the transport committee at the House of Commons, and insisted it is important the industry gets beyond the point where it appeals mainly to those with a passion for driving.

In response, the committee said: "We believe there are steps the industry can take to encourage young people, regardless of their background and gender, to work as drivers.

"Haulage is competing with other sectors for young people leaving schools and colleges. Many of the options young people will consider require some additional training, but it is unusual for a sector to require new entrants to fund the acquisition of licences and pay for the additional training.

"The industry needs to work with insurers to find ways of reducing the cost of insuring young drivers, but the government has a role to play in facilitating this work."

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly told the Irish News: “The severe lack of HGV drivers is posing a serious logistical threat to the industry. There are businesses in my constituency which have vacancies for scores of drivers. That level of deficit is incredible and it is influenced in no small way by the threat of Brexit on the industry.

“In the absence of functioning institutions, it’s difficult to advance solutions but I’ve written to the Southern Regional College and Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council to explore if Neighbourhood Renewal or another funding stream could be used to provide new apprenticeships which can be established to support young people in need of employment while plugging the skills gap in this area.

“It’s incredible frustrating that we have no government to make the urgent interventions required."