After causing chaos in the UK, truck driver shortages could soon hit the rest of Europe

LONDON – The truck driver shortage plaguing the U.K. is not just a British problem, experts say, with the wider continent also facing a shortfall and potential supply chain problems.

There was more than a whiff of “schadenfreude” (or enjoyment from the woes of others) in mainland Europe last week as the U.K. faced a petrol crisis. There were long lines of cars outside British gasoline stations and even fights on forecourts as panic buying spread across the country amid a shortage of truck drivers able to deliver fuel.

Brexit was named as one of the key reasons for the shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers, although problems in the industry go deeper and are found across Europe, industry experts noted. A survey of 616 industry figures in June by the Road Haulage Association found that retiring drivers, changing working rules, the Covid pandemic, low pay and drivers leaving the industry were among the reasons for the lack of drivers.

The association, which has been warning of a driver shortage for months, says the U.K.’s HGV driver shortfall stands at 100,000 currently; pre-pandemic, there was an estimated shortage in excess of 60,000 drivers.

Elsewhere, supply chain issues came to the fore in Britain during the pandemic, with truckers unable to enter or exit the country easily, causing long queues at ports and borders and leading to some shortages of food and medicines.

Such problems have continued as the pandemic has eased, however, revealing the challenges of Brexit and the U.K.’s new trading relationship with the EU. Experts and industry leaders say they had warned the government of the consequences of Brexit’s impact on the country’s workforce, with several key industries reliant on European workers, such as agriculture, healthcare and haulage. Not being able to attract seasonal staff is a particular concern for farmers who say they are facing situations where crops cannot be harvested or livestock processed due to a lack of experienced workers.

The rest of Europe is watching the U.K.’s supply chain issues and workforce shortfalls with interest, particularly given the recent bitter divorce between the U.K. and EU following Brexit.

French journal Liberation headlined its late September issue with a reflection on the consequences of Brexit, ranging from the departure of much-needed European workers (which is not just being felt in the HGV industry, but also in in sectors such as agriculture) to its supply chain crisis.

Meanwhile, the opportunity was not lost on Olaf Scholz, who could be Germany’s next chancellor, to remind Brits that they had voted for Brexit and so could not expect the benefits of belonging to the EU.

“The free movement of labor is part of the European Union and we worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union. They decided different and I hope they will manage the problems coming from that,” Scholz said, adding that pay and working conditions could also be exacerbating Britain’s problems.

The average salary for a truck driver in the U.K. is around £30,000 ($40,600), while in Germany, pay is around 41,000 euros (around £35,000 or $47,500), according to Salary Expert, although it can be much higher (or lower) depending on experience and can also vary by region, transport experts note.

Shortages across Europe
The U.K. is not alone when it comes to driver shortages, however, and experts warn that parts of continental Europe could also face its own trucker shortfalls soon enough.

“We’re not in as dramatic and desperate situation yet, but it might come,” Frank Huster, director general for the Federal Association for Freight Forwarding and Logistics Germany, told CNBC on Thursday.

He noted that while Brexit has “certainly had an impact” on the U.K., the wider European haulage sector faced a long-standing problem with a lack of workers.

“The logistics sector lacks qualified personnel such as lorry drivers but also trained locomotive drivers , inland navigation workers, terminal workers, as well as management people … We have less and less people to work in Western markets,” he added.

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