LONDON – The trainee slid into an intersection for a seemingly impossible right-angle turn, and the 52-foot truck suddenly rumbled, an accurate reflection perhaps of the driver’s nerves, or possibly mine.
“It can be a little bumpy,” said the driving instructor, Andrew Hawes, with a laugh.
Ahead of me in the driver’s seat—a rubber-and-foam throne, cushioned with at least a foot of suspension—the intern, Felix Karikari, 36, was at the wheel one day this month as rush-hour traffic swept the streets of South London.
Training new truck drivers has taken on a new urgency in Britain, where a supply chain crisis in recent weeks has draped a cloak of fear over the country as it heads into winter. There have been long lines at gas stations and in some parts of the country staples such as milk and eggs are missing from supermarket shelves. On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund underlined the urgency of the problem on a global scale, releasing a report saying that backups in supply chains could stifle economic recovery.
The issues have drawn attention to the country’s truck drivers, a segment of the workforce that normally draws little attention. There simply aren’t enough to carry fuel and goods to keep retailers fully stocked.
Falling wages, poor working conditions, tax changes for European drivers making it less lucrative to work in the UK, and a backlog in driving tests due to the coronavirus pandemic have contributed to an exodus from the profession. New immigration restrictions due to Brexit have made it more difficult to fill the ranks with drivers from the European Union.
The government is trying to lure drivers off the continent by offering 5,000 temporary visas, encouraging people to take up or re-entering the profession, and offers to fund thousands of truck driver training and boot camps.
Much of the effort has failed to attract drivers who have retired from the profession for good. But for others, hitting the road is a path to a regular paycheck, and perhaps a step towards a better life—if only they can navigate the curves.
Where aspiring drivers are trained
Nestled in a gated military barracks in south London is the National Driving Centre, which has been training truck and bus drivers in the south east of England to get their driving license for over 40 years.
Surrounded by a tank, vehicles painted in green-brown camouflage and sprinting cadets – the barracks are still active – aspiring truck drivers here are not preparing for military service. They learn to drive trucks up to 52 feet in length, in a 5-day hands-on training that costs 1,515 to 1,700 pounds (about $2,000), depending on the size of the truck.
Equipped with a fleet of approximately 14 small and large trucks, the government-approved center trains approximately 20 truck drivers per week with the help of up to 10 instructors. The sessions take place in a parking lot where drivers maneuver backwards, and on the surrounding streets and highways where they are finally tested.
To take a practical exam, truck drivers must first undergo a medical examination, followed by a multiple-choice exam and hazard perception test. Drivers must then pass an additional qualification, before driving on the road.
The Instructor: Reaction time is crucial
“Over the course of the week it’s about raising awareness, being careful,” said Mr Hawes, 47, who spent 30 years in the industry after joining the British Army as a truck driver. mr. Hawes, who has trained hundreds of trainees over the past seven years, believes they need to get used to the road conditions from the get-go.
“From day 1, we take them out on the road, I point out what’s going to happen ahead and they respond to it,” he said.
“Most of these trucks can carry between 20 and 30 tons on the rear,” added Mr Hawes, pointing to the largest truck at 16 meters in length. “In your small car you barely reach a ton.”
The key, Mr. Hawes says, is early response timing. “It’s about good observation, good awareness, good sense of the road, good planning for the future,” he said, speaking to Mr. Karikari advised braking early before reaching a line of cars. “It’s about training yourself to foresee what’s going to happen.”
In the truck: drivers learn the technique
According to the Road Haulage Association, the average age of a British truck driver is around 55. But due to the vagaries of the pandemic economy and new incentives designed to entice more drivers, the profession is slowly attracting younger applicants from diverse professional backgrounds, Mr Hawes said.
“We noticed that there have been a lot of career changers,” he said. “I’m talking about airline pilots. We even had a few lawyers informed.”
According to the transportation association, the average salary for drivers, depending on the size of the truck, is 30,000-35,000 pounds, or about $41,000 to $47,000, per year.
Mr Karikari, who moved to the UK from Ghana about 22 years ago, had been professionally driving a smaller truck for almost a year when he decided to take on the challenge of the largest truck.
“It’s a very different way of reversing, that’s the hardest part,” said Mr. Karikari, as he compared the larger vehicle to the smaller trucks he is used to.
“You need technology,” Mr. Karikari. “You steer a certain way to go left, you steer a certain way to go right, so you have to get that in your head.” With a panoramic view of the road from the truck’s windshield, Mr. Karikari repeatedly looked intently left and right.
Mr Karikari said it wasn’t the salary difference – which he described as negligible – that motivated him to try a bigger vehicle. It was the appeal of the road and the lonely nature of long drives. “I like being alone, going for the long haul and doing my own thing,” he said.
However, during this session, Mr. Karikari’s technique was not good enough. He failed but said he planned to retake the practical exam on Saturday.
“I was nervous about backing up,” said Mr. Karikari. “Nothing will stop me from getting the license, I know where I went wrong.”