Alleviating the driver shortage in Europe – is there a silver bullet?
Few topics could compete against the one discussing the acute driver shortage in Europe. The road freight transport industry has long called for help and, at the same time, tried to come up with measures to ensure there is enough personnel to operate the key element that holds supply chains together, namely, the truck. Without a driver there is no truck with its engine on and without that, there are no moving supply chains that fulfill the needs of consumers across the continent.
Transportation – an important part of the economy
While the importance of supply chains cannot be understated, the matter of fact is that the road freight transport industry in general employs a lot of people, including those who play a supporting role to the drivers on the road.
According to Eurostat, the statistics office bureau of the European Commission (EC), there were 29 transport workers per 1,000 people in the European Union (EU) in 2020. A large portion of those jobs (35%) were heavy truck and bus drivers, while transport and storage laborers took up another significant part (22%) of the portion of the jobs. What was alarming following the publishing of the data in September 2021, was that the number dropped by 6%. There were 11.6 million people employed in the industry at the end of 2019, while a year later, the number was down to 10.8 million. Much like any cross-border trade activity, the road freight transport industry experienced a slump in 2020 due to the pandemic. According to the same statistics bureau, the ton-kilometers compared to 2019 dropped by 1%.
Yet a year later, it grew by 7%, meaning that the sector managed to recover and grow out of the slump it experienced in 2020. Interestingly, though, 2020 marked a sharp reduction in long-haul trips for trucks, in particular, between the 1,000 and 1,999-kilometer range. Compared to the basis point of the index in 2017 (=100), in 2020, the index number for that particular distance range fell substantially, indicating that there was not enough demand for longer distances within the EU, per Eurostat.
Still, the industry has continued to play an important part in the economic development of the bloc. “With around €624 billion in Gross Value Added (GVA) at current prices, the transport and storage services sector (including postal and courier activities) accounted for about 5% of total GVA in the EU-27 in 2019,” read a report by the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport of the EC, published in September 2021.
Thus, the importance of the road freight transport industry cannot be understated, especially considering the latest shifts in manufacturing and industrial trends in Europe.
Driver shortage is a tale as old as time?
It has to be said, though, that the issue is not exactly new. The only thing that has changed, unfortunately, is that it only got worse.
In March 2019, the International Road Transport Union (IRU) published its findings following the polling of its members and associated members in Europe between October 2018 and January 2019. The survey showcased that in Europe, there was “a visible driver shortage of 21% in the freight transport sector and 19% in the bus and coach sector. The problem is accelerating, with the shortfall predicted to reach 40% in both sectors as demand grows in 2019.”
“The transport industry needs to take immediate and decisive action to tackle the driver shortage. Left unchecked, it will have serious implications for the European economy and lead to rising costs for businesses, consumers, and passengers,” back then warned Boris Blanche, the union’s Managing Director. The industry, though, kept going and perhaps was too passive in trying to solve the issue. Not more than a year later, we encountered our first lockdowns, which only worsened the situation for everyone involved in road freight transport.
With borders closing and the demand for long-haul transportation dropping throughout the year – as showcased by Eurostat’s index – drivers chose to end their careers earlier than the expected or mandatory retirement age, worsening the situation quite a bit. Even before the pandemic truly hit the continent, the IRU once again issued a warning that “driver shortage on the continent to rise from 23% in 2019 to 36% in 2020.” Furthermore, the union’s Secretary General Umberto De Pretto added that the issue needs to be solved with “more actions, including public-private cooperation”, which “are needed urgently, to ensure our industry continues to strive and to deliver, as the lifeblood of the global economy.”
Was it all falling on deaf ears?
“Road freight in 2021 was also characterized by limited capacity, an issue which has worsened over the year, leading to price increases. European driver shortages have been a major contributor to this, with Ti [Transport Intelligence – ed. note] estimating that there is a shortage of around 400,000 drivers across the continent,” read a report by Ti, which looked into the next five years for the road freight transport industry, published on June 6, 2022.
The issue is akin to an attempt to handle a two-edged sword. On the one hand you, as an industry, are attempting to solve the short-term issues, such as the lack of capacity. On the other, an aging workforce will be breathing down one’s neck sooner rather than later, as a jointly-prepared report by IRU, Ti, and Upply, discussing the Q2 2022 for the industry, noted that “there is a large proportion of drivers close to retirement (34% are above 55 years old).” What is worse is that “the share of young drivers is too low to replace the significant number of truck drivers that will retire in the next 10 years: 20% of the European working population is over 55 years old.”
A solution on or over the horizon?
With the somber outlook provided by several organizations involved in researching the road freight transport industry in Europe, the question is whether we are close to a solution or are we yet to discover one, or even begin to discover it.
The IRU took a deeper look at the problem on a global scale. “Over 50 million people were unemployed in 2020 in the countries and regions analyzed (unemployment rate was over 10% in some of them),” meaning that there were plenty of human resources available, yet “the lack of attractiveness of the driver profession”, highlights that “any measures to promote the driver profession will additionally help to reduce unemployment.”
As the union pointed out, wages had risen in Europe throughout the past few years, as companies knew they had to hold onto their current talent for trucks to continue running. “However, it does not appear that these wage increases have attracted more professionals to the industry,” the IRU delivered quite a gloomy conclusion about the issue.
One of the main itches that the industry and lawmakers responsible for the well-being of supply chains across Europe should look into is the minimum age for drivers to enter the profession in some capacity. As some countries only allow to begin the procedure to acquire a heavy-duty truck driver’s license from a certain age, the gap between finishing high school and getting into the industry is too big. Sometimes it is a year or two, but even then, it is quite the gap to have in your career at such a young age.
Another area lawmakers and industry representatives could come to a common ground is the ease of bringing in employees from non-EU countries, where there is plenty of desire to come within the walls of the metaphorical fort of Europe. While there are a plethora of ways of attracting talent from outside the bloc to work as long-haul truck drivers, reducing the amount of bureaucracy for these drivers to find work in the continent, as well as to bring their families, will only make the move more attractive and less risky for carriers.
Whatever the case might be at the end of the day, the industry and governments must come to a consensus and act now, whether that would be improving the working conditions of drivers who spend long hours on the road or easing the process of applying for jobs in the EU for qualified drivers. The crisis is not looming but is already here and we must act now not to worsen the situation and continue to deliver essential goods across the continent to consumers and businesses alike who rely on robust supply chains to go on their daily lives.