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Skills boot camps’ are expected to provide instruction for up to 11,000 HGV drivers

The UK government has offered contracts worth £34.5m to companies to train new lorry drivers as it battles to alleviate an ongoing supply chain squeeze caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit.

The money for the HGV “skills boot camps” has been widely welcomed by the industry, which has seen driver numbers shrink by a quarter since 2019, leaving gaps on supermarket shelves and helping to spark last October’s petrol shortages.

The government’s one-year investment amounts to more than it spent on HGV driver training over the previous eight years combined, according to analysis by the data provider Tussell. It is expected to provide training for up to 11,000 drivers.

Industry experts said the intervention had been necessary because low profit margins and endemic poaching of drivers had not incentivised the industry to invest in training, which costs approximately £4,000 per driver. “This money is incredibly welcome,” said Sally Gilson, policy manager for skills at the Road Haulage Association. “Our sector works to wafer-thin margins, with 80 per cent of our membership having 15 trucks or less. They don’t have £4,000 per person to spend on training.”

Training providers said that early indications were that rising wages and a growing public understanding of the importance of logistics professionals was encouraging people into the industry. Richard Weston, strategy manager at Mantra Learning, a Manchester-based training company that was awarded a £5m contract under the scheme, said the company had received 4,000 applications since launching on December 6. “The response has been phenomenal,” he said, adding that Mantra was offering 50,000 drivers who held HGV licences but were not using them two- to four-week courses to enable them to reactivate their licences. Weston said the volatile market for drivers, which had seen wages reach up to £70,000 a year in hotspots, had meant that demand for drivers had not translated into commercial investment in training. “If you are going to invest in training a driver, the chances are that that driver is going to get up and leave when offered a higher wage. It gets very difficult to ensure that you get a return on your training investment, which is why some public funding is needed,” he said.

According to the annual skills report of Logistics UK, the industry body, the number of lorry drivers in employment fell by nearly a quarter during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the number of EU drivers down by one-third and many older British drivers retiring. The squeeze — from 308,000 drivers in the second quarter of 2019 down to 236,000 two years later — saw wages rise 8 per cent over the same period, to an average of £13.08 an hour, with average earnings for a driver now about £35,000-£40,000 a year.

Rona Hunnisett, of Logistics UK, said the grants, which are part of the government’s £2.5bn National Skills Fund, would help attract a new generation to an industry where the average age of drivers is now over 50. “This is a good way to raise awareness of the sector and a great opportunity to show there are good, meaningful jobs with good wages on offer,” she added. However, the industry did caution that the government should look to sustain its investment beyond the scope of the current round of HGV “boot camps”, which will run until the end of November, with an option to continue for a second year.

Officials said the Department for Education was considering options for extending support to HGV training. Alex Burghart, the skills minister, said the government was keen to push the courses. “We want more adults to take advantage of these free courses and get on the path to well-paid careers,” he said. Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, warned against the risk of a “sugar-rush” of rising wages, signing-on bonuses and training subsidies, when many new entrants were leaving the profession within two years. “Our job as an industry is not just to get drivers in through the door but to ensure they see this as a life-long career,” he said.