Is there really a driver shortage?

An aerial image of the car park and buildings at Cobham services in Surrey. A couple of weeks ago I had a very brief stab at being an all-week truck driver, or as they call them in this country, a tramper. The job would have involved picking up loaded containers at the various ports in the south-east, taking them to their destination and then either having them swapped or unloaded and then taking them back to a port (not necessarily the same one) and then starting again. I didn’t really want to do that job but I had not had either much work out of the agencies nor much success in finding permanent work since the start of the year; for whatever reason it’s been an unusually slow few months. About the same time, an article appeared on the website of a British truckers’ magazine that said drivers were being forced to sleep in places that were not easy to sleep in: service station truck parks and roadside lay-bys which often had no facilities, and that frequently they were not able to sleep properly and were driving tired. And then a familiar moan about a driver shortage.

In my experience, there is no shortage of drivers for the good jobs. There is a shortage of drivers for tramping work, which is for good reason. To give an example, on the day I interviewed for the shipping container job, I had another interview that afternoon for another tramping job, but the first company I went to were obviously so desperate to start me as soon as possible (no doubt because they had a truck sitting idle which they were paying a daily road user levy for, but was not earning them any money) that they just gave me the job even though they had other candidates to interview. The second company had been advertising for tramping drivers for months, and when I called them that week for the second time in about a month, the job was still available. Companies cannot give these jobs away and when they do, the drivers often do not last long.

I enjoy the actual driving bit. It gets me out across the country, seeing the countryside, allows me to listen to whatever I want to for hours at a time with nobody looking over my shoulder. However, the nights are another matter. Many companies refuse to reimburse drivers for parking in service stations because they cost £25 or more per night, even though, apart from truck stops which are less well-advertised, they are the only places about which have facilities such as toilets and showers. I drove around looking for places near my home where I could park the truck, but everywhere was too narrow or already taken, so I headed out to Cobham services. The truck park there is awfully noisy, with the M25 yards away with no trees or anything to screen you from the noise, and the surface is appalling, with blocks of concrete with thick joins so you can hear it every time a vehicle goes over it. Partly because of that and partly because of the heat, I was unable to get more than about an hour’s sleep that night. I gave my notice in before the night was out and refused to carry another container once I’d dropped that one off; I went home and slept both in the afternoon and, quite soundly, that night as well.

I’ve never spent a night in a proper truck stop so perhaps the facilities there are a bit better, but at Cobham there are just four showers for all the (male) truck drivers who stop there overnight, and the ones I saw were not very clean and the handwash basins were clogged. I’ve stopped at Warwick in the past and they have a shower room in the filling station building which has a toilet and wash-basin inside; surely they should all at least have the washbasin, as it allows you to wash your hands before you put your clothes on, but most of them do not have this. They also only have overhead shower heads, never hoses, which means that if you need to wash part of yourself that doesn’t face upwards, you’ll need to bring a water bottle or watering can or stand on your head. Not very accessible. I know that standard bathroom hoses can be stolen easily, but surely someone should have developed a shower hose attachment that cannot be easily unscrewed and removed? Or at least, people should be able to plug in their own hoses. Oh, and the usual way of preparing food when tramping is to use a camping gas stove, but Cobham has a sign saying “no naked flames” even if this may be frequently ignored.

As for sleeping in lay-bys, it’s no surprise that someone who could barely stomach spending the night in a service station that at least has toilets, could not tolerate spending it in a lay-by which does not even have those (and where the truck shakes every time another vehicle passes by). And yet this is where many transport bosses insist that tramping drivers spend 11 hours on the average night, because they cannot spare £25 for a service station spot or an account to pay for truck stop parking. Is it any wonder nobody wants the jobs?

Perhaps I’m too picky; the job I really want is a day-time, longish distance driving job. But from having spent months trying to find one without much success, I can say that there is no shortage of drivers for this type of work, nor for daytime urban driving in the building materials or waste disposal industries that let you spend the night in your own bed, cook in your own kitchen (if you’ve nobody to cook for you!) and shower in your own bathroom. If roughing it for the whole week appeals, then there is no shortage of work and companies so desperate that they will let you walk off the street into a job.

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