From the CEO: Honey, they shrank the workforce: Where did 2.6 million drivers go?

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Read time: 3 mins

By Warren Clark

Original Article – Owner Driver (Published 9.2.2023)

Sometimes it’s comforting to live in a country where our relatively isolated physical location, resilient economy and sense of self sufficiency means the negative impacts of many overseas events pass us by.

Of course, global pandemics are an exception to the rule.

So too, are major supply chain disruptions.

Even so, it was a surprise to see a report surface just before Christmas from the IRU, the European-based organisation that represents road transport and logistics companies worldwide, saying there’s now a global shortage of 2.6 million professional drivers.

The product of research among more than 1,500 commercial road transport operators in 25 countries across the Americas, Asia and Europe, the report made sobering Christmas reading.

It found that in Europe, driver shortages jumped by 42% from 2020 to 2021, with vacant driver positions reaching 71,000 in Romania, 80,000 in both Poland and Germany, and 100,000 in the UK.

In Mexico, shortages rose by 30 percent to reach 54,000, while in China, they increased by 140 per cent, reaching 1.8 million.

Of course it’s not all a result of the pandemic.

The virus has played a huge part, as well as tightening economic conditions and the domino effect of supply chain disruptions, but it’s been occurring for some time.

It’s the sheer scale of the issue that’s surprising.

To put in perspective, 2.5m is the equivalent of how many people have fled the Ukraine War since it started.

It’s equal to the death toll from the Korean War.

And it’s roughly how many people call Greater Western Sydney home.

This raises the valid question that even if we lower the barriers for overseas drivers to come and work in Australia – something NatRoad supports, provided we have a system of national accreditation – are we going to solve our own issue?

Commenting on the report’s findings, IRU Secretary General Umberto de Pretto said: “Chronic commercial driver shortages are getting worse, with millions of positions remaining unfilled. This is putting already stressed economies and communities at higher risk of inflation, social mobility issues and supply chain meltdowns.

“Road transport operators are doing their part, but governments and authorities need to maintain focus, especially to improve parking infrastructure, training access, and encourage more women and young people into the profession.”

The IRU is so concerned that it arranged a briefing for members of the European Parliament to explore how to remove barriers to entry for young people, improve working conditions and enhance the road transport industry’s image.

The European Union will have around 500,000 vacant driver positions by the end of the year. It currently has a 14.5 percent youth unemployment rate.

Taking a deeper drive into the report, some of the themes sound familiar to Australian ears.

High licence and training costs are an issue. In France, for example, a truck licence costs EUR 5,300 (or $A8160) which is more than three times the average minimum monthly salary for drivers in that country.

Security for women drivers has been identified as crucial to making the profession more attractive by 94 percent of transport companies. Yet only three percent of existing EU truck parking places are certified as safe and secure.

The European figures include bus drivers so the impacts run deeper, but you get the picture.

Our common issue is one of generational change for which there must be a concerted response from industry, state and federal governments and society.

According to the Australian Industry and Skills Committee, the average age of employees in Transport and Logistics is 45.6 years and a driver is 48. The average Australian worker’s age is 40.

Three percent of professional drivers being female is much too low.

There are simply too few young people and women wanting to join the profession.

I’ve said it before but it’s worth saying again.

Opening up to overseas recruitment and creating apprenticeships are only parts of the solution.

Australians generally have to acknowledge road transport as a genuine economic driver of prosperity in this country rather than an annoyance when it comes to transporting their family down the highway during the summer break.

If the Federal Government wants to convene a conference of industry to discuss practical solutions to pressing problems, here is one obvious place to start.