Seeking driving work in the times of Brexit and the hostile environment

“PICT2228-01” by CovLtwt is licensed under CC BY 2.0

You might remember my articles from last year, when I explained why people don’t want to work as lorry drivers anymore. I came with several reasons why Britain suffers from a driver shortage. Surely now, when we have established that the economy does needs truckers, companies would be doing everything to attract them, right? Surely Britain  should be a driver’s paradise now? Well, it seems things are not so simple as they seem.

As I have recently upgraded my licence and there was not enough work for that upgrade in my current workplace (and the ‘scenic’ runs to the most remote corners of Scotland which I so enjoyed have also dried up) I decided to move ahead. And so, first time in many, many years (I haven’t had to actively look for a driving job for over a decade) I became a jobseeker. To my surprise, this is not going in the way you could imagine when listening to all those desperate hauliers screaming for drivers on the radio.

Fake vacancies and time-wasting interviews
The job vacancy boards are dominated by a fake jobs by agencies who just want you to sign up with them. That’s nothing new, and after you do your research on the social media, you know which ones are really worth signing up with. But apparently the drivers’ shortage has now driven the companies to do the same. I am not seeking a full time job,four days a week is the maximum I can do, so I applied to a few jobs like that only to find that the part time job advertised does not exist and they actually need full time drivers (five, sometimes 6 days per week) and expect you to go along with that.

This makes you feel not respected as a candidate. I had at least three people so far who, after learning that I am looking for part time work only (even despite they advertised a part time job, and it’s also clearly mentioned both in my CV and my cover letter) just hung up on me. A known supermarket chain invited me for a driving assessment, so I gave up an agency shift only to spend an hour at the unstaffed reception in their distribution centre. “Communication error”, apparently. (I have to give it to them that after I made a noise about it on Twitter, the company came forward to apologize and even reimbursed me for the agency shift I gave up to be there).

I was successful in getting a driving assessment with another company that invited me for interview. They sounded desperate for drivers and they told me to come “whenever convenient, as long as it’s in the office hours”. When I arrived, nobody really had time to speak with me though; they just gave me some paperwork to fill and they asked me to come another day. I pointed out I just drove for 30 minutes to get there, so they grabbed some random passing driver who was just about to go home and asked him to take me for a spin. On our return I overheard him praising my driving skills, so the manager came from the office and told me that basically I have a job, starting most probably Monday night, and they will call me to confirm and set up some time for us to sit and chat, as I still had many questions.

They never called me. I followed up, but heard that they are too busy to speak at the moment and will call me back. I guess they have to be really busy, as two weeks have passed as I wrote those words and I still haven’t heard a thing. But they had time to put out their job advert again… At least I have a nice pair of gloves and a hi-vis vest they gave me before I went for my test drive, so at least I got some of that petrol money back… From what I see on social media or from chatting with some friends, my experience is not unique. Drivers still complain about not being respected by recruiters.

This is a completely different experience to what I experienced back in 2006 when I first came to Britain with HGV licence in my wallet. The paint was still wet on it and all my experience was a couple of thousands miles driven in a Sprinter van and driving a Ford Courier for my friend’s company in Poland a couple of times.

Yet I promptly established myself with one agency and they were so busy, that they were literally calling me every day with two or three shifts for next day to choose from. And all that despite the fact that I had smashed the whole side of the truck first time I was driving a big lorry on my own!

Over next decade I worked full time for some companies, filling gaps in employment with agency work, then after going to the university relied again on agency work before establishing myself as an ad-hoc European courier in an airfreight and time-critical deliveries company, which carried me to the end of my uni years and then a bit more. Last five years I’ve been working part-time for a small family company I used to work for back in 2007. While I really enjoyed working in that place, the pay was not amongst the reasons to do so – the company pays at the lower end of the spectrum. Still back in 2007 my pay as class 2 driver was set at about 140% of minimum wage and in 2021, before drastic drivers’ shortage forced the management to bump the driver’s pay significantly, the drivers were paid just above the national minimum. And this reflects changes across the industry.

One of the agencies I am signed up with today is paying me just 75 pence more as a class 1 driver today than they were paying me for class 2 job 13 years ago. The companies that employ directly are not much better – as I write those words I see ads for class 1 drivers starting from £11.90 and £12.60 and going up to nearly 15 pounds per hour. They all advertise that you can get a good weekly take-home pay, but on such rates you would have to put some crazy hours in and spend nights away, meaning you will have no life beyond your work at all (and spent some of that money on eating out and showers, if you’re lucky enough to find one).

Agency wages are better  – I am currently getting shifts paying up to 20 pounds per hour – but such a well-paid jobs are few and far between. Most agency work is also ad hoc, at short notice and prone to cancellation (and while 15 years ago agencies still felt obliged to pay you your minimum 8 hours when customer cancels last minute, today any agency that pays you even a fraction of that is considered a decent one).

You probably can survive on agency shifts – I am currently signed with three agencies, and I would probably be able to get a full week’s work between three of them if I accepted everything they are throwing at me. But it’s a far cry from 2006, when just one of the agencies was offering me more work than I could handle. You could think that in times of the driver shortages, companies should be falling over each other begging me to work for them, but, apparently, this is not the case.

Possessing an EU licence
I wonder how big a factor is the fact, that I have an EU licence. Because, thanks to hostile environment, this becomes a major hurdle – mostly to me, but also to the potential employers. When Britain replaced paper counterpart licences with the computer system, the EU licence holders were left out of it. There seem to be no logical reason for this but I can’t check points on my licence online, even though DVLA do hold that information. I am given two other choices: by post – but even on the page where you download a relevant D888 form DVLA warns you to expect delays – or a phone – but good luck with trying to call DVLA’s call centre. I would rather play Lotto, I would have bigger chance for success. And even if you make it, to share it with your potential employer, you need to be physically in the room with the person who does your licence check, which is often impossible.

“So why won’t you exchange your licence then; after all you live and work in the UK” – someone might ask. That’s the valid question and I won’t go over my reasons why I decided not to, but even if I wanted, there is still a problem: settled status.

A friend of mine recently exchanged his Polish licence. It took him over five months. As the Home Office decided not to give us physical proof of our settled status, we need to obtain so called “share code” from the internet, which then in turn allows your potential employer to check your residency status. The problem is: the code is only valid 30 days, and it takes DVLA longer to process licence exchange. My friend received his application back twice, with the information that his code had expired and he needs to start from scratch again.

But even if you already have a job with your EU licence, you still won’t be free of such worries. DVLA will demand you send them the original of your licence any time you want to have some business with them, but as many jobs – like European driving or ad-hoc agency work – require drivers to keep their licences on them at all time, it would mean that you would have to stop working until your licence is coming back from Swansea – not the most perfect situation if you ask me. And most people I know – British or not, equally – have very little trust in DVLA. I can second that – only recently they lost one of my important documents (a D91 confirming my licence is registered with them) and claim they never received it, even though I used it to inform them about my new address and they sent their replies to my new home.  Many Europeans are wary about entrusting their documents to Royal Mail and DVLA, as in case it gets lost, they would have to travel back to their home countries to obtain replacements… Not the best prospect in time of Covid-19…

I faced that dilemma recently, as my digital tachograph is up for renewal. After some back-and-forth with DVLA it turned out that it is sufficient for me to just send a copy after all – why would they require you to send the original by default, if not as a part of hostile environment? And if they really needed to see it all the time, why can’t you use some kind of mobile app to show it to them? I obtained my settled status via a mobile phone app while sitting at the sofa with friends and sipping wine, surely if the picture of passport is enough, the picture of a driving licence should be good enough, too?

And this is me. I might have Polish licence, but it’s already registered with DVLA. My tacho, CPC and ADR cards are all British. I lived in this country for many years and I know my way around British bureaucracy. How Boris Johnson imagined that would work for the newbies who’d just come here on his infamous visa is beyond me.

You might say you don’t care, I had 15 years to change my licence to British; if I decided not to, it’s my problem. But there is one more aspect to that.

I’ve been driving professionally in Britain for more than 15 years. I might be still a newbie when it comes to driving articulated vehicles, but I passed first time with the perfect score – and in Poland, where driving exams are much more challenging than in Britain. The fact that for the most part of last 15 years I had been driving HGVs all over UK from City of London to Isle of Barra surely should count for something. And I haven’t got any points for about a decade.

And yet, if the company will have to choose between me, and some newly-qualified British trucker with 9 points on his licence who just went straight from car licence to class 1 without even having to show on the official part of the exam that he knows how to reverse, they might go for him. Because, thanks to hostile environment, it’s easier for them.

Think about that next time you cycle along the busy road in search of the shops that in time of Brexit shortages still has some basic products you need in stock…