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Sasko Lazarov
driver shortage

Danger of Irish 'spillover' from UK truck driver crisis as skills shortage bites

But supply chain experts say the shortage is not likely to lead to empty shelves this Christmas.

A CHRONIC SHORTAGE of Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) operators in the United Kingdom could have knock-on effects for Ireland where the supply of truck drivers is already tight, industry experts have warned.

Although not nearly as acute as the situation in the UK — where drivers, many of them Eastern European, have returned to their home countries as a result of Brexit — some related issues are rearing their heads on this side of the Irish Sea.

A long-flagged skills shortage coupled with the impact of the pandemic has put pressure on freight companies in the run-up to Christmas.

As the UK braces for a difficult festive season, Irish supply chain experts say our own shortage of drivers is not likely to lead to empty shelves.

But there are concerns that the British government’s efforts to lure drivers from other EU countries could compound longer-term issues in Ireland around pay and conditions. This could prove problematic for an industry that is already facing major challenges.

“In terms of the problems we see with supply chains at the moment, [the driver shortage in Ireland] is not even near the top,” Alan Holland, Chief Executive of Cork-based supply chain software company Keelvar, told The Journal.

We do have tightness in the market for drivers. E-commerce is increasing all the time and so the demand is going up but the supply of drivers has not been going up in the same number. So there is a tightness there. But…  it’s not so acute and I don’t think we’ll see the issues they’re having in the UK.

The ongoing global ocean freight crisis remains the biggest issue facing supply chains this Christmas, Holland said.

But in Britain, a shortage of tanker drivers last week sparked fears of petrol pumps running dry, triggering panic-buying and some cases of fighting between irate drivers.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government campaigned for an end to free movement across Europe during Brexit, promising to “take back control” of what it saw as unchecked immigration.

But last weekend it reversed entry rules to offer foreign truckers a three-month visa waiver, hoping to ease the driver shortage that has hit supply chains more generally.

Holland doesn’t believe the Conservative government’s proposition will be a particularly “attractive prospect” for drivers.

He said, “They’re being asked to sacrifice whatever they’re working at now to come to the UK for three or four months to save Christmas, and then it’s, ‘Pack your bags. Off you go.’ It sends all the wrong signals.”

However, he said there is a “danger of spillover” from the UK driver crisis if British trucking companies start “trying to poach drivers more aggressively”.

“The unfortunate thing is it’s an EU-wide issue, so we’re fighting for the same people,” Aidan Flynn, General Manager of the Freight Transport Association, told The Journal this week.

“We are hugely reliant on Polish drivers here.” 

Flynn said Ireland had a window of opportunity to attract European drivers from Britain in the wake of Brexit. However, he said when the time would have been right to roll out an ‘outreach’ advertisement, the Irish Government was busy grappling with the pandemic.

Wexford independent TD Verona Murphy, a former president of the Irish Road Haulage Association, said Brexit has also made Ireland a less attractive place to work for truckers.

She told The Journal that many Eastern European drivers used to drive UK landbridge routes from Ireland to mainland Europe. But since Brexit, those routes have become more difficult, the result of extra regulatory and customs checks, resulting in long delays.

“So many drivers have gone back to Poland, and to the [former] Eastern bloc countries, and they avoided the hassle that way,” Murphy said.

Relatively low pay is another factor.

Because Ireland is “an island off an island” off the edge of Europe, it needs “a competitive edge” to offer drivers to work here, Murphy said.

“Many drivers are contacting me and they feel very hard done by… Very little is offered to drivers, and they can easily get other jobs that pay better and are not as antisocial,” she added.

These are long-standing issues that the Government has attempted to address in recent times.

The Department of Transport established the National Logistics and Supply Chain Skills Group in 2019 to “support the promotion of careers, skills development and sustainable employment in the logistics and supply chain sectors”.

In a statement this week, the department told The Journal, “The Minister of State for Transport, Hildegarde Naughton TD, has asked the Group to examine the specific issue of driver shortage in the industry and make recommendations on actions that can be taken by Government to ameliorate the supply of qualified drivers.

“The Group is expected to present its recommendations to the Minister shortly and these will be considered and implemented as soon as possible.”

With reporting by Gráinne Ní Aodha and © – AFP 2021

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