A new road to riches
In the Autumn of 2021 a shortage of lorry drivers in the UK sent hauliers wages spiralling and I considered a career change
In my household, Britain’s HGV crisis has played out as a Dutch auction. A month ago my girlfriend was reading out snatches from accounts of the salaries commanded by logistics professionals.
“Fifty thousand a year for driving a lorry”, she noted pointedly, a month ago. Sixty thousand and seventy thousand were announced in succeeding weeks with amplified emphasis. At £80,000, all subtlety was dispensed with.
“You will never earn that much as a journalist again,” she said, looking up from her iPad. “You enjoy getting about the country and you can listen to audio books all day – why on earth not?”
I could ignore her case no longer. In my day, as a journalist, I have out-earned contemporary hauliers. But times are changed. My pound-a-word days are long behind me, I accept.
So, I set about finding out what would transform me from a struggling scribbler to a knight of the road.
After a morning of Googling, I phoned up an HGV training school. They were encouraging, and embarked on a questionnaire that would provide the basis for my application to start a course. When they asked me about prior occupations, I fudged a couple of times. The man at Learning Loads would not relent. “I’ve been a newspaper reporter for the past 30 years”, I reluctantly admitted.
At the other end of the phone, I sensed a guffaw suppressed. “Bob, it’s another journalist”, I heard, from a telephone that had apparently been pulled from the mouth of my interrogator. I heard a laugh in the distance.
It’s hardly surprising. Great reporters with two decades experience working for major regional dailies earn £25,000 a year. The nationals have all shrunk their newsrooms and even broadcasters seek wave after wave of redundancies.
Still as I await my start date for my HGV training, I struggle to disperse a troubling vision.
I’m trundling up the A1, with 40 tonnes of goods behind me and ten tyres below. High above the road’s surface, the 700-horse-power produced by my 16-litre engine make me King of the road, at least in my imagination. But no matter how big my rig, a point comes when I must answer nature’s call.
Pulling in to a truck stop, I thrill to hear the hiss of my air breaks. I march into the cafe, scanning for the toilets, and dreaming of an all-day breakfast. The tables are formica, the chairs plastic and everything comes with chips. Aromas of frying fill the air and country-music radio provides the soundtrack. But that is when it strikes me.
Sitting beside the door, with an egg-smeared plate and a newspaper race card in front of him, its Tony, who was number two on the Telegraph’s Peterborough column, back in the day. Settling up at the till, I spot Jenny who was the New Statesman’s books editor when I last saw her. And, a couple of faces that I recognise from the Daily Express’ back bench are making light work of bacon sandwiches.
It gets worse.
I reach my nine-hour driving limit somewhere on the M6. Pulling into the truck stop, I seek out some company before bedding down over my cab. Spotting a group of hauliers sitting beside their trucks on a rough circle of pallets, I stroll over looking forward to a shared yarn or some blacktop wisdom. Just before I join the gang however, I catch a loud, plummy voice that I know all too well.
“So, I bang on Jimmy Savile’s door and he answers, stark naked, save for his glasses and a massive medallion.” Its my old pal Francis, a garrulous Etonian who unaccountably spent decades working for the Yorkshire Evening Post. I’ve heard his Savile story many times before.
“I look him straight in the eye and state my business. Mr Savile, are you willing to join the YEP’s campaign to stop the closure of the Children’s Hospital? Savile winks, waves his flaccid member at me, he says: ‘Little Jimmy is always ready to fix it for the kiddies’.”
The throng roars with laughter, but I hold back. Francis, the seasoned tap-room raconteur is in his element. His stories are a treat – the chicanery, death knocks and binging coke with Richard Whitely. It was what came next that really ushered the storm clouds over my planned career change.
“Of course, I am planning a book about my new life”, Francis announced as a fresh wave of laughter receded. Several of those assembled chorused their similar intentions. Talk turned to their intended titles. Spy In The Cab, The Articulate Articulate, and Trucking Type all sounded plausible. But I knew this was not the place for me.
Adjusting to my own intended change of direction, I had leavened my plans with thoughts of a book. It would combine John Steinbeck’s dust-bowl vérité with the sociological precision of Huw Benyon’s Working For Ford. I had already rehearsed on the chat-show sofa of my imagination. “No matter how much cargo you haul, perhaps, Graham, you never really stop being a writer”, I had heard myself saying to warm smiles from the Holywood A-lister and the girl-band singer sitting on either side.
Now it transpires that the later-life-lorry-driver shelf in Waterstones will be overloaded.
Perhaps a generous salary and the warm glow from doing something that is actually useful should be enough? Knowing my luck, though, by the time I qualify, the ranks of road-transport operatives will have dramatically swelled. So many will be the teachers, nurses and solicitors seeking their fortunes behind the wheel that those of us who list just ‘teeline shorthand’ as additional skills, will be sidelined.
Doubtless that is what I deserve. Lorry drivers might be momentarily enjoying uncommon wage leverage, but it comes at a cost. The entire labour market’s flotsam and jetsam – me among them – is currently convinced that anyone could do their jobs. High wages today may seem as scant reward once the chancers, no-hopers and half wits have joined them on the road in six months time. Wages will fall, just as the job become intolerable.
On balance, I will leave my slot with Learning Loads to someone else.