LONDON — The trainee edged toward an intersection for a seemingly impossible right-angle turn, and the 52-foot truck rumbled suddenly, an accurate reflection perhaps of the driver’s nerves, or possibly my own.
“It can be a little bit bumpy,” said the driving instructor, Andrew Hawes, laughing.
Seated in front of me on the driver’s seat — a throne of rubber and foam, cushioned with at least a foot of suspension — was the trainee, Felix Karikari, 36, spinning the steering wheel one day this month as the rush-hour traffic sped around the streets of South London.
Training new truck drivers has taken on new urgency in Britain, where a supply-chain crisis in recent weeks has draped a cloak of anxiety over the country as it heads into winter. There have been long lines at gas stations, and in some areas of the country, supermarket shelves lack staples like milk and eggs. On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund underscored the urgency of the problem on a global scale, issuing a report stating that backups in supply chains could stifle economic recovery.
The problems have focused attention on the nation’s truck drivers, a slice of the work force that normally draws little notice. There simply aren’t enough to transport fuel and goods to keep retailers fully stocked.
Dwindling pay, poor working conditions, tax changes for European drivers which has made it less lucrative to work in the U.K., and a backlog of driving tests caused by the coronavirus pandemic, have contributed to an exodus from the profession. New restrictions on immigration because of Brexit have made it harder to replenish the ranks with drivers from the European Union.
The government is trying to lure drivers from the continent, offering 5,000 temporary visas, urging people to take up the profession, or get back into it and offering to fund truck driver training and boot camps for thousands.
Many of the efforts are 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 regular paycheck, and perhaps a step on the way to a better life — if only they can navigate the curves.
Where aspiring drivers are trained
Nestled inside a gated military barracks in South London is the National Driving Center, which has been training truck and bus drivers in the southeast of England to get their licenses for more than 40 years.
Surrounded by a tank, vehicles painted in green-and-brown camouflage and sprinting cadets — the barracks are still active — aspiring truck drivers here are not preparing for military duty. They are learning to drive trucks up to 52 feet long, in a 5-day practical training course that, depending on the size of the truck, costs from 1,515 to 1,700 pounds (around $2,000).
Equipped with a fleet of around 14 small and large trucks, the government-approved center trains around 20 truck drivers a week with the help of up to 10 instructors. The sessions take place in a parking lot where drivers practice reverse maneuvers, and on the surrounding streets and highways where they will eventually be tested.
Before taking a practical test, truck drivers are required to first undergo a medical examination, followed by a multiple-choice exam and hazard perception test. Drivers must then pass an additional qualification,before being allowed to drive on the road.
The instructor: Reaction time is critical
“Over the course of the week, it’s about getting them to be aware, to be cautious,” said Mr. Hawes, 47, who has worked in the industry for 30 years, after joining the British Army as a truck driver. Mr. Hawes, who has instructed hundreds of trainees over the last seven years, believes in getting them acclimated to road conditions right from the start.
“From Day 1, we take them out onto the road, I point out what’s going to happen up ahead, and they react to it,” he said.
“Most of these trucks will carry maybe between 20 and 30 tons on the back,” added Mr. Hawes, pointing to the largest, 16-meter truck. “In your little car, you’re hardly even reaching a ton.”
The key, Mr. Hawes says, is early reaction timing. “It’s about good observation, good awareness, good road sense, good forward planning,” he said, as he advised Mr. Karikari to brake early, before he reached a line of cars. “It’s about training yourself to foresee 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 because of the vagaries of the pandemic economy and new incentives meant to entice more drivers, the profession is slowly reeling in younger applicants from a variety of professional backgrounds, Mr. Hawes said.
“We’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of career changers,” he said. “I’m talking about airline pilots. We’ve even had a couple of barristers inquire.”
According to the haulage association, the average salary for drivers, depending on truck size, is 30,000-35,000 pounds, or about $41,000 to $47,000, a year.
Mr. Karikari, who moved to the U.K. 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 largest truck.
“It’s a whole different way of reversing, that’s the most difficult part,” said Mr. Karikari, comparing the larger vehicle to the smaller trucks he is accustomed to.
“You need technique,” Mr. Karikari. “You steer a certain way to go left, you steer a certain way to go right, so you need to get that in your head.” With a panoramic view of the road from the truck’s windshield, Mr. Karikari attentively looked left and right, repeatedly.
Mr. Karikari said it was not the salary difference — which he described as negligible — that motivated him to try a larger vehicle. It was the lure of the road and the solitary nature of long drives. “I like being by myself, going on 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 he said he planned to retake the practical exam on Saturday.
“I was nervous about the reversing,” said Mr. Karikari. “Nothing will stop me from getting the license, I know where I went wrong.”