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Driver shortage in the South African Trucking Industry

03 February 2022 Ujjwal Yadav

South Africa had been in the midst of social unrest since the start of 2021, with protests peaking in July at the Gauteng province, which includes the city of Johannesburg. The continuous unrest in the country brought the threat to the supply chain in focus, as MHCV sales declined by more than 8% on a y-o-y basis, halting the good recovery progress made in the industry. But another less obvious threat looming in the country for a past few years, is the lack of qualified truck drivers. Aspects of South Africa's truck-driver problems are unique; others are part of the broader driver shortage visible elsewhere, even in some of the largest truck markets.

July's unrest depicted how a pause in the movement of vital goods can lead to devastating situations in the country. The fact that road freight is increasingly surpassing rail as the medium of choice highlights even more the need for a reliable and efficient truck logistics sector. According to latest data, South Africa has a shortage of approximately 3,000 truck drivers, with the shortage continuously growing since the past few years.

However, the more significant concern is that employees sometimes have to work longer hours than usual to counter such shortages, which creates dangerous on road situations and increases the likelihood of accidents. With these supply chain concerns, delays in transport of essential goods and higher chances of accidents, it is vital to look at the factors causing these driver shortages in the country.

So, what exactly is the reason for vacancies in the medium and heavy commercial-vehicle (MHCV) driving jobs in a country where unemployment rate peaked to an all-time high of 34.9% in 2021? The answer isn't a straightforward one, as a myriad of factors is in play resulting in these shortages. Firstly, lack of skill and experience is the biggest hinderance in finding drivers. Drivers handling heavy freight need a range of skills such as driving in wet conditions; economical driving; heavy goods vehicle braking; straight reverse and ally docking, to name a few. It takes between 3-5 years to be experienced enough making it very difficult for entrants to get hired in the first place. Consequently, employers have difficulty finding apt drivers to carry the freight.

A second reason is the emigration of the already small driver pool to foreign developed countries in the search of better wages and much better working conditions and lifestyles. The trucking industry's turnover and emigration rates are very high as job conditions are challenging. Longer working hours are not just a consequence but also a reason for the shortage as more and more experienced drivers quit in search of better pastures in foreign lands. All these challenges have created a vicious cycle of low-skilled drivers and higher turnover rates in the industry. The income disparity between drivers in Africa and other developed countries such as the United Kingdom & the United States also attracts skilled drivers to emigrate and earn more in those foreign lands.

Lastly, unscrupulous players are sometimes alleged to dodge regulations related to safety or staffing costs, which may contribute to unsafe conditions and tensions in the labor environment. Such tensions recently culminated in acts of violence and protest in the country. The native drivers violently protested the increasing hiring of foreign nationals from poorer countries and blocked a major highway in the Eastern Cape—instances like these further increase the turnover rates for drivers willing for better working conditions.

All in all, factors such as lack of relevant experience in the market, emigration of skilled drivers for better wages & working conditions and higher turnover rates due to an unsafe, rigorous, and sometimes a violent industry have created a shortage for the most important freight mode of transport in the country. On the positive side, the government, as well as private bodies, are taking steps to try and improve the situation. To solve the issue of lack of skills, a few private organizations have started training academies and courses in the country imparting drivers with the necessary skillset to be hired in the market. The government has also announced its plans on implementing stricter border access controls and will be introducing new regulations to prevent undocumented drivers from operating in the country. In October, authorities also deployed a task team to check credentials of drivers passing by Middelburg in the Eastern Cape. Hopefully, such prompt measures will help prevent further damage to the already struggling South African economy.

The South African truck sales market remained strong even in the face of social unrests and recurring level 3-4 restrictions in the country, recovering by more than 22% post the 2020 covid slump to reach the previous 22k levels. However, we believe it has the potential to develop more and a functional and peaceful driver pool will not only improve the efficiency of trucking companies but also create a healthy work environment for drivers & operators alike, further growing the truck sales in the country.

Posted 03 February 2022 by Ujjwal Yadav, Research Analyst, Medium & Heavy Commercial Vehicles, S&P Global Mobility

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