From HGV drivers to bricklayers: how do we solve the skills crisis?

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Sunday 10 October, Church House, London


The shortage of HGV drivers in the UK has made headlines recently, with concern that supply-chain difficulties will get even worse in the lead-up to Christmas. Supermarkets and restaurants are already experiencing delivery delays due to an estimated 90,000 shortfall in HGV drivers. Despite government measures to increase the number of HGV driving tests available, the fear is that haulage companies will be unable to cope with the demands of the busiest shopping time of the year.

According to the DVLA, the impact of the pandemic and the introduction of Covid safety rules over the past 18 months meant that only 25,000 drivers could take their HGV test, down from the usual 70,000 per year. Many have argued that Brexit has led to a skills shortage, not just in HGV drivers, but among nannies, construction workers, NHS staff and hospitality workers. How much of the skills shortage is due to overseas workers returning home, because of new Brexit-related bureaucracy or the pandemic, is unclear. However, there seems little doubt that there are shortages of trained staff in many key sectors.

Despite the headlines, it is clear that the skills shortage in HGV drivers pre-dates both Covid and Brexit. According to Radio 4’s stats show, More or Less, the Road Haulage Association estimated there was a shortfall of 50,000 HGV drivers in 2015, even before the EU referendum. In 2018, when the unemployment rate was at four per cent, and Britain was as close as it has ever been to full employment, the skills shortage was already an issue, particularly in IT, construction, hospitality, healthcare and leisure.

Explanations range from low wages in hospitality and healthcare to an ageing workforce in construction. Indeed, the UK’s skills shortages seem to be a perennial problem. Employers’ organisations have long complained of a mismatch between supply and demand for skills in key areas of the labour market.

Many commentators argue the government must improve education and skills in order to drive economic growth; others bemoan a low-wage/low-skill economy coupled with high levels of income support, which is disincentivising many capable workers from taking up work. For example, last summer, UK fruit farmers lobbied the government to give them special dispensation to hire workers from Eastern Europe to pick their ripening fruit. They argued that the local workless were too lazy to put in the long hours of hard labour required to bring in the harvest. Indeed, another reason given for the shortfall in HGV drivers is that young workers are likely to shun the long, unsocial hours associated with the job.

Does Britain really have an unsolvable skills shortage? And if not, how can we meet the challenge? Can the skills shortage be linked to one-off events like Brexit and Covid, or are there longer-term trends at play? Is the UK workforce simply too work-shy or are poor wages and working conditions to blame? How might we create more meaningful jobs and create an economy where we can close the gap between supply and demand for skilled workers?

Tom Bewick
presenter, Skills World Live; chief executive, Federation of Awarding Bodies

Victoria Hewson
head of regulatory affairs, Institute of Economic Affairs

Kelvin Hopkins
writer and campaigner, Rebuild Britain

Rick Moore
business owner, InControl; electronic engineer; deputy chair political, Blackburn Conservative Association

Linda Murdoch
campaigner for rights and democracy in Scotland; director of careers and global opportunities, University of Glasgow

Justine Brian
director, Civitas Schools; commentator on food issues