As the driver and technician shortage worsens, Phil Clifford argues that better incentives are needed to make working in municipal fleet management attractive to young people.

There has been much discussion in recent years about the worsening HGV driver shortage in the UK logistics industry. Recent figures place the current shortage at more than 50,000 drivers (FTA Skills Shortage Report – November 2018), a figure that is likely to be exacerbated by the UK"s impending departure from the EU. This national shortage is also evident in the municipal sector, with many companies and authorities forced to rely on agency labour to make up the shortfall.  

Politicians and environmentalists alike seem keen to promote autonomous vehicles. Many prototypes have appeared in the media in recent months and there have even been suggestions that autonomous transport could actually ease the driver shortage in the long term.

Whether you subscribe to that view or not, however, what is less publicised is an ever-growing shortage of skilled personnel with the ability to maintain the huge public sector vehicle parc.

Successive and well-intentioned governments have, over the years, tried to develop initiatives to bring more youngsters into the engineering trades, but the number of apprentices still falls woefully short of the levels required to replace an ageing workforce. This is even more evident in the municipal sector which, let"s be realistic, doesn"t have the glitz and glamour of the modern car industry to attract school leavers.

Over the years I have been involved in employing apprentices, but support from the higher education sector invariably stops at cars and light vans. This means that those apprentices who do stay the course become qualified in car and light vehicle maintenance and it is then down to the employer to try to develop their skills (and enthusiasm) further to enable them to work at the heavy, and often dirty, end of the fleet spectrum.

So how do we rectify this? Local authorities generally operate large vehicle fleets with a myriad of diverse and specialist body configurations. The skills required to attend to all the different types of equipment, from simple vans through to more complicated tippers, ambulances, gritters, sweepers, refuse vehicles and even fire engines, take time, effort and, most significantly, money to acquire.  Employers must invest in ongoing training to both attract, up-skill and, ultimately, keep staff interested and proficient at keeping these vitally important vehicles on the road.

Such investment in skills is all the more vital at a time when the technology used in vehicles is advancing at an unprecedented rate. Even the simplest of vehicles are now heavily-laden with computer technology and who knows what might be around the corner with the advent of PHEV, EV, hydrogen fuel cells and, if you believe the hype, fully autonomous vehicles.

So, besides an obvious remuneration package that should be good enough to attract candidates, what else can the industry offer? Put simply, there should be a clearly defined career path that employees with ambition can aspire to follow. Apprentices can develop into fully-qualified technicians, technicians progress to chargehands, foremen (or women), and then to fleet engineer roles. Once there, they are only one step away from becoming a fleet manager.

The problem with any career path is that if no one knows about it, no one will aspire to follow it. Employers must recognise the importance of fleet management and do all they can to encourage their staff to progress through the stages. Similarly, the industry should be working with educators to make youngsters aware of the opportunities that exist in the sector.

This is more important today than it has ever been. I was recently involved in advertising for a fleet manager with public sector experience. While there were a good number of responses, the majority of applicants had no experience of working in this demanding industry. Many years ago, local councils offered incentives to attract talent, including moving and relocation expenses, and even sometimes temporary housing. Seldom are such things offered today, which means that people are less likely to move around the country to seek promotion and further their careers. 

There is no doubt that young children are fascinated by fire engines and many watch and wave at the "bin men" when they arrive on their weekly rounds. Sirens and lights on police cars and ambulances similarly attract their interest. We need to capture and nurture that interest so that a few continue to be attracted to the bright lights (pun intended) and join the industry.

Here"s a thought for you all: in June the National Refuse Championships will be held at Weston-super-Mare. This fun-packed two days pit crew against crew to win the coveted championship cup – and it is all for charity. Why not bring your family along? There will be plenty for children to do, and amid the fun and games is a more serious message about waste and the industry in general. See for more information about the event. I hope to see you there.

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