Anyone who has been in a British supermarket in the past few weeks will be familiar with the sight of bare shelves and poor availability of a variety of products, but this pales in comparison to the fuel shortage. While an argument can be made that both issues have been exacerbated by panic buying, this grim reality of post-Brexit labour shortages provides very real evidence of the impact of the exodus of EU workers, and the impossibilities of filling the vacant roles they left.
A number of industries are struggling, including healthcare and agriculture but the current pressing crisis revolves around a shortage of an estimated 100,000 Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) drivers.
The question is really whether the problems is with failure to recruit, or whether it is with the immigration system. The government is keen to place the blame at the feet of recruitment, claiming that it is the industry’s responsibility to ensure it is competitive and attractive to new workers. Pointing to the substantial number of people still on furlough, it rejects the idea that there are not enough workers available.
On the face of it this seems like a robust argument, if there are those without jobs, and jobs with high number of vacancies then the solution seems simple. The reality of the situation however is much more complex.
The most pressing issue is that the shortage is having impacts on supply chains now, and has been for some time, but despite HGV drivers not being classed as ‘Skilled Workers’ for the purpose of the government’s work visa, this does not mean absolutely anybody can do the job. Driving a lorry, naturally, requires a different skill-set to driving a car, and anybody new to the industry will have to go through a lengthy process of learning to drive. Even if they breeze through this, they face further obstacles to getting qualified due to the huge backlog of tests caused by the pandemic and the suspension of tests during it.
Even those intending to do the job face long waits between starting the recruitment protest and actually getting behind the wheel of the lorry to start making deliveries. Clearly this does nothing to solve our current supply chain woes, and is unlikely to provide a solution to the expected increase in demand related to Christmas.
In an attempt to address this issue, the government has announced 5,000 visas will be available immediately, however only on a temporary basis of a few months. There are several issues with this, the first being the obvious that 5,000 visas is simply not enough to fill a deficit of 100,000. The second is that many drivers feel slighted by the UK and quite rightly are disinclined to leave their jobs and countries to come bail us out. It seems incredibly naïve on the part of the government to assume that EU workers will be champing at the bit to make career sacrifices to save us after we have given them the diplomatic equivalent of the middle finger.
The other obstacle, relating to expecting domestic workers on furlough and the unemployed to fill these vacancies, is that it is unrealistic to expect that all, or even any, of these workers have aspirations to become a HGV driver. The hours are long and unsociable, and the nature of the work is mentally grueling in that it requires a high tolerance for hours of monotony and high focus. The physical demands of the job are also unappealing to many.
It is simply not helpful to live in an idealised fantasy world where large swathes of British and settled workers suddenly decide to realise aspirations to shift from unrelated fields to become lorry drivers. Part of making the job more enticing to new entrants as well would require, and indeed is driving (no pun intended), much higher salaries, but the money to fund this will be passed onto the consumer, seeing us pay more for products. This is also hardly an ideal outcome for the British public.
Mounting pressure on the government for a long term solution has prompted them to make the training process shorter and increase test availability, but this is clearly not an ideal solution. For one thing it raises the question of whether it is appropriate to cut part of the training process in order to bail the government out of this situation it has created for itself. Presumably the initial qualification period was lengthy for a reason, and personally I would like to be reassured that those responsible for operating 40 ton lorries, at speed, on our roads, have had a robust and comprehensive training process, not one which has been cut short in order to save the government face.
It also does little to address the issue that many people simply do not want to be a HGV driver, and with job vacancies at their highest since records began, potential applicants looking to switch careers have a wide range of careers to choose from. It is delusional to gamble the nation’s supply of food, petrol and other essentials on the belief that there are thousands of people eager to retrain as HGV drivers. I am reminded again of the government’s previous out of touch poster suggesting ballerinas might retrain as IT professionals. Their inability to see people as varied and unique instead of just a workforce to be crammed into whatever vacancies exist regardless of individual choice or skill-set will set us on a path for continued labour woes in the years to come.
With the latest shortage and panic buying hitting petrol, and the UK gearing up for another wave of inevitable panic-buying in the run up to Christmas, the government has been forced to bring the military in to ease pressure and try to get back on top of the crisis. Even as I write this I have struggled for the past week and a half to find fuel. This does not inspire confidence that everything is ‘under control’. Well adjusted immigration policies to not necessitate military intervention to ensure people have access to fuel and food.
The government’s continued argument against allowing migrant HGV drivers to apply for Skilled Worker visas is that they do not want UK and settled workers to be undercut by cheap foreign labour. I do query, when the government has full control over the ‘going rate’ an employer must pay a sponsored migrant worker for any given job, why they do not declare what they determine to be a ‘fair’ rate for an HGV driver and state that anyone hoping to employ one from overseas must pay at least this level.
It works this way for other professions eligible for the Skilled Worker visa, each of which has a going rate that must be paid according to the industry average, so I can see no reason why it wouldn’t be a viable option here. Indeed ‘foreign workers might undercut British workers’ is an argument that can be used for absolutely any career path and I cannot see any reason why HGV drivers should be considered unique. The only explanation I can see is stubborn refusal to face reality as the government cuts off its own nose to spite its face.
They would rather the people they claim to represent suffer food and fuel shortages as well as ridiculously inflated princes for essentials, than admit that we needed EU labour and that our society was reliant on it.
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