Europe’s driver shortage extends beyond a mere personnel issue – revealing systemic challenges within the industry

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Over the past four years, continuous, geopolitical factors and an economic downturn, have continued to cause significant upheaval for shippers, cargo receivers, service providers, brokers, freight forwarders, carriers – and of course consumers. And to top it off, whilst the situation is slowly improving here in the UK, driver shortages in the road freight sector remain, threatening to cause further disruption to the industry.

Since the pandemic – which saw many drivers leave the industry, take early retirement or extended sick leave – driver shortages remain  a significant strain on supply chains. And despite the Department for Transport reporting a fall from 43% of HGV driver vacancies (reported from Haulage businesses) in Q4 2021 to 23% in Q3 2023, the World Road Transport Organisation (IRU) predicts that by 2028, Europe on a whole will have 745,000 unfilled truck driver positions. This will represent 17% of the total positions required in Europe, which raises concerns about the potential impact on supply chains, in terms of both cost and availability.

As the industry grapples with ongoing challenges and anticipates future hurdles, addressing the persistent issue of driver shortages remains paramount for ensuring the resilience and efficiency of supply chains in the years ahead.  Philipp Pfister, Chief Customer Experience Officer, Transporeon, A Trimble Company explores this further.

The Challenges Persist in Addressing Road Freight Driver Shortages

Despite positive signs that the UK economy is slowly getting to grips with a pending recession, and data from the Office for National Statistics confirming Britain’s economy has started 2024 on a stronger footing, with the three-month average growth rate rising to 0.2% in February from zero in January – the highest such reading since August 2023, experts still believe we’ll soon see an influx of candidates onto the job market. However, it’s not likely to help solve road freight driver shortages.

Demographic shifts, such as the ‘Great Retirement,’ – a trend that is seemingly outpacing any potential increases in driver availability due to economic conditions – remains a significant factor, with 30% of drivers expected to retire by 2027 according to recent projections. As well as this, the road freight industrys’ inability to attract young talent, with the average age of European drivers now exceeding 50 years old, remains an ominous problem as time progresses.

Twentieth-century approaches won’t solve a twenty-first-century problem

However, the driver shortage is not just a personnel problem. There’s a multitude of ways that companies can look to boost efficiency. But to do so, they should first understand where there’s room for improvement. More are now turning to solutions that offer real-time insights. This helps companies to uncover previously hidden inefficiencies (like empty runs and excessive waiting times in yards) and improve visibility by tracing deliveries.

According to scientists at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, increasing the efficiency of US drivers by just 18 more minutes of active driving time per day could solve the country’s driver shortage. This claim was based on research in the US but pointed out that the same principle is likely to apply in Europe. However, all is not lost for the logistics industry, as it’s clear an emerging trend in the format of Autonomous Case-handling Robot systems (ACR) is now helping businesses minimise  labour requirements. Although fully self-driving trucks are still a long way off in logistics transportation, it is possible to make significant efficiencies within warehouses in loading and unloading processes, as well as automating time slot and yard management processes. Also, by implementing tools, such as a dock and yard management, businesses can improve their turnaround times by exploiting real-time data to allocate precise ETAs and enable smooth and reliable planning, with the added benefit of cutting waiting times for trucks and drivers.

Businesses could also implement a digital transport document system to log activity digitally and electronically in the form of an eCMR simplifier to facilitate better planning and visibility, which in turn, frees up manual resources for other tasks and takes pressure and time off the driver. By taking these steps, businesses can start to look to reduce waiting times for drivers from hours to minutes.

In the end, however, there’s no doubt that collaboration between all participants in the logistics industry, rather than one off companies simply working to optimise its own performance is vital for the industrys’ success.

Working collaboratively as part of a wider network, rather than in isolation, organisations can significantly streamline key processes such as freight sourcing, transport execution, dock scheduling, freight matching, payment and settlement. In fact , a survey of international supply chain experts revealed that the vast majority rate ‘increased collaboration between supply chain partners’ as both ‘highly probable’ and ‘highly desirable’ in the run-up to 2025.

Conclusion

Solving the road freight driver shortage can’t be done overnight. And, moving forward, companies should view this as an operational matter, rather than simply an HR or personnel problem. The solution lies in adopting a network approach and collaborative solutions that focus on finding new efficiencies. With this unique approach of combining automation, real-time insight, and collaboration, a transportation management platform can alleviate the driver shortage, reducing empty miles, eliminating unnecessary dwell times and optimising yard operations.