LONDON – The trainee headed for 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 perhaps mine.
“It can be a bit bumpy,” said driving instructor Andrew Hawes, laughing.
Sitting in front of me in the driver’s seat – a rubber and foam throne, padded with at least one suspension foot – was intern, Felix Karikari, 36, spinning the wheel one day this month as the rush hour traffic accelerated. in the streets of South London.
The training of new truck drivers has taken on a new urgency in Britain, where a supply chain crisis in recent weeks has draped a cloak of anxiety over the country as winter approaches. There have been long lines at gas stations and in some parts of the country supermarket shelves are running out of basic items like milk and eggs. On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund underscored the urgency of the problem globally, releasing a report saying safeguards in supply chains could stifle economic recovery.
The issues have drawn attention to the country’s truck drivers, a slice of the workforce that normally receives little attention. There is simply not enough to transport fuel and goods to keep retailers well stocked.
Falling wages, poor working conditions, tax changes for European drivers that made work in the UK less lucrative and a backlog of driving tests caused by the coronavirus pandemic have all contributed to an exodus from the profession . New immigration restrictions due to Brexit have made it more difficult to replenish ranks with drivers from the European Union.
The government is trying to attract drivers from the mainland by offering 5,000 temporary visas, urging people to practice or return to the profession and offering to fund truck driver training and boot camps for thousands of people. people.
Many efforts have failed to attract drivers who have said goodbye to the profession for good. But for others, hitting the road is a path to a steady paycheck, and perhaps a step on the path to a better life – if only they can navigate the corners.
Where aspiring drivers are trained
Tucked away inside a closed military barracks in south London is the National Driving Center, which has been training South East England truck and bus drivers for more than 40 years to earn their permits.
Surrounded by a tank, vehicles painted in green and brown camouflage, and sprinting cadets – barracks are still active – aspiring truck drivers here don’t prepare for military service. They learn to drive trucks up to 52 feet long, during a 5-day hands-on training which, depending on the size of the truck, costs from 1,515 to 1,700 pounds (approximately $ 2,000).
Equipped with a fleet of around 14 small and large trucks, the government-approved center trains around 20 truck drivers per week with the help of up to 10 instructors. The sessions take place in a parking lot where the drivers practice reverse maneuvers, and on the surrounding streets and highways where they will eventually be tested.
Before taking a road test, truck drivers must first pass a medical exam, followed by a multiple choice exam and a danger perception test. Drivers must then pass an additional qualification, before being allowed to drive on the road.
The instructor: reaction time is critical
“During the week it’s about educating them, being careful,” said Mr Hawes, 47, who worked in the industry for 30 years, after joining the British Army as a as a truck driver. Mr. Hawes, who has trained hundreds of trainees over the past seven years, believes they need to be accustomed to road conditions from the start.
“From day one we take them on the road, I show them what’s going to happen in front of them and they react to it,” he said.
“Most of these trucks will carry maybe 20-30 tonnes in the back,” said Hawes, pointing to the larger 16-meter truck. “In your little car you barely hit a ton.”
The key, says Hawes, is the timing of the early reaction. “This is good observation, good conscience, good road sense, good planning,” he said, advising Mr Karikari to brake early, before reaching a line of cars. “It’s about training to predict what’s going to happen.
Inside the truck: drivers learn the technique
The average age of a British truck driver is around 55, according to the Road Haulage Association. But due to the vagaries of the pandemic economy and new incentives designed to attract more drivers, the profession is slowly attracting younger applicants from a variety of professional backgrounds, Mr. Hawes said.
“We have noticed that there have been a lot of career changes,” he said. “I’m talking about airline pilots. We even asked a few lawyers to find out.
According to the transport association, the average salary of drivers, depending on the size of the truck, is 30,000 to 35,000 pounds, or about 41,000 to 47,000 $ per year.
Mr Karikari, who moved to the UK from Ghana around 22 years ago, had already driven a smaller truck professionally for almost a year, when he decided to take on the challenges of the bigger truck.
“It’s a whole different way of backing up, it’s the hardest part,” said Karikari, comparing the bigger vehicle to the smaller trucks he’s used to.
“You need technique,” Mr. Karikari. “You lead a certain path to go left, you lead a certain path to go right, so you have to remember that. With a panoramic view of the road from the truck’s windshield, Mr. Karikari looked intently left and right, several times.
Mr Karikari said it was not the difference in pay – which he described as negligible – that motivated him to try a bigger vehicle. It was the lure of the road and the lonely nature of long journeys. “I like being alone, going for the long haul and doing my own thing,” he said.
During this session, however, Mr. Karikari’s technique was not good enough. He did not pass, but said he planned to retake the practical test on Saturday.
“I was nervous about the reversal,” Mr. Karikari said. “Nothing will stop me from getting the permit, I know where I went wrong.”