Owner of Sussex professional driver training centre says number of HGV enquiries has 'rocketed'

The owner of a professional driver training centre is reporting a big rise in HGV enquiries following the government's latest measures to tackle the industry shortage.

Gary Curtis, who owns the Driver Training Centre in Hastings, says he has been receiving 100 emails per day instead of the usual 10 since the government introduced new measures at the weekend relating to vocational licences.

He also said one of the issues he now faced in relation to driver training was delays in provisional licences being returned from the DVLA.

On Saturday (Sept 25), The Ministry of Defence (MOD) announced the immediate deployment of their Defence Driving Examiners (DDEs) to increase the country’s testing capacity.

Gary Curtis at the Driver Training Centre in Hastings

MOD examiners will work alongside DVSA (Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency) examiners providing thousands of extra tests over the next 12 weeks.

On Saturday, the government also announced up to 4,000 people will soon be able to take advantage of training courses to become HGV drivers. The Department for Education is investing up to £10 million to create new skills bootcamps to train up to 3,000 more people to become HGV drivers.

The free, short, intensive courses will train drivers to be road ready and gain a category C (Rigid vehicles) or category C&E licence (Articulated vehicles), helping to tackle the current HGV driver shortage. An additional 1,000 people are expected to be trained through courses accessed locally and funded by the government’s adult education budget.

On September 10, the government announced up to 50,000 more HGV driving tests will be made available to streamline the testing process and tackle the worldwide lorry driver shortage.

The Driver Training Centre in Hastings

The DVSA was affected by the pandemic with driver testing being suspended during periods of each lockdown.

Mr Curtis said this extra tests announcement led to a rise of 50 per cent more enquiries but he claims it is taking several weeks for the provisional licences to be sent out by the DVLA (Driver Vehicle and Licensing Agency).

He said potentially it could now be three to four months for trainees to be able to start work as a qualified HGV driver. It would normally take six to eight weeks to train and be tested.

And with a current shortage of HGV drivers across the country estimated at 100,000, Mr Curtis predicts the situation will only get worse.

Mr Curtis, who trains drivers from across Sussex and Kent, said: “The number of enquiries has rocketed since the government's announcement at the weekend. We normally get around 10 email enquiries a day but now we are seeing around 100.

"But the main problem is the DVLA – they take weeks and weeks to send provisional licences back for trainees that are waiting to get on the ladder and get tested.

“They are having to wait far too long.

“It's not going to get any better and there will be problems this Christmas.”

There are delays in processing paper applications due to impact of recent industrial action and social distancing requirements, which means the DVLA has fewer staff than usual on site.

A spokesperson for the DVLA stated: “We are prioritising bus and HGV provisional licence applications which are currently being issued in around two weeks and we are looking at ways to speed up this process even further.

"More complex transactions, for example if medical investigations are needed as part of a driving licence application, may face longer delays.”

As part of the government's measures, car drivers will no longer need to take another test to tow a trailer or caravan, which it states will allow roughly 30,000 more HGV driving tests to be conducted every year.

As of September 20, drivers can no longer book or take a car and trailer driving test (B plus E). However, the law will not change until later in 2021.

HGV driving tests will be overhauled, meaning drivers will only need to take one test to drive both a rigid and articulated lorry, rather than having to take two separate tests (spaced three weeks apart).

The government stated this will make around 20,000 more HGV driving tests available every year and mean drivers can gain their licence and enter the industry more quickly.

Tests will also be made shorter by removing the ‘reversing exercise’ element – and for vehicles with trailers, the ‘uncoupling and recoupling’ exercise – and having it tested separately by a third party.

This part of the test is carried out off the road on a manoeuvring area and takes a significant amount of time. Testing such manoeuvres separately will free up examiner time, meaning they can carry out another full test every day.

Mr Curtis said he currently had no problems with availability for tests but there were not enough trainees available at the moment to take the tests.

He said: “The scrapping of the B plus E test won't fill the gap needed for getting new drivers on the road because of the delays.

“If you're talking eight to 10 weeks for a licence to come back and then suddenly they've got theory tests and training tests moving forward, it could be anything up to three or four months before they can even get a licence.

“We are inundated with applications because of this and I think it's totally unfair that they should have to wait so long when really it's such a simple process.”

Mr Curtis, who has been involved in the industry for 40 years, said another issue is pay.

He added: “98 per cent of everything in this country is moved by road.

“And the driver industry itself is poorly supported either with wages, facilities and general conditions.

“63 per cent of goods are moved by rigid vehicles in this country and approximately 28 per cent by articulated vehicles. Again it's quite a large percentage but 98 per cent in the country is a lot.

“The industry is poorly supported, the wages are derisory and the industry is its own worst enemy and needs to step up to the plate and they need to remedy this.

“Half the problem is that the youngsters that we are trying to encourage into the industry can get more money stacking shelves at a supermarket and, bearing in mind the responsibilities that a driver has to undertake these days, I would think they should be compensated accordingly.”

Paul Mummery, spokesman for the Road Haulage Association, said: "It’s really frustrating. There are long delays for new drivers to get their tests and licences at a time when we need new blood more than ever as the trucker shortage stands at nearly twice what it was a year ago.

“We’re pressing ministers and officials to speed up the processes so we can get people behind the wheel as quickly as possible.

“Pay and poor conditions out on the road are a barrier to people coming into this sector. The generous increases some firms are offering are good news for some drivers, but it’s not sustainable and isn’t doing anything to resolve the shortage crisis.”