More than 45,000 HGV drivers were due to retire within the next two years and there was not enough new talent coming through to replace them, according to figures from the Road Haulage Association (RHA).
A source close to the industry, who did not want to be named, said supermarkets would be hit hard, despite denying the claims.
“The retailers won’t want to say how big the issue is, especially right before Christmas,” the source told FoodManufacture.co.uk. “They don’t want anyone to think that there is an issue, but it is known to be a serious problem in the sector.”
Widespread and problematic
But, the problem was widespread and becoming more severe, said Sally Roberts, skills policy and development manager at the Freight Transport Association.
“Freight firms all believe the issue is going to continue and that includes firms that deliver to the supermarkets,” she said.
However, spokeswomen from Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda denied the chains would face problems getting produce to their stores now or in the future.
An Asda spokeswoman said: “We work hard to recruit and train our own drivers and are pleased that over 80% of our deliveries are done by these colleagues.”
Sainsbury always ensured they had enough drivers, hadn’t experienced any problems and didn’t anticipate having any problems in future, a spokeswoman said.
A spokeswoman for Tesco echoed Sainsbury and said the shortage of HGV drivers was not something that would affect its operations.
Despite what the supermarkets said, at the very least food businesses would have to take more time to plan how they would transport products, “which would happen slower with fewer drivers”, an RHA spokeswoman said.
To prevent the problem worsening, the sector needed financial help from the government to raise funds to train new HGV drivers, as it cost up to £4,000 to do so, the spokeswoman added.
More than 60% of current HGV drivers were aged 55 and only 5% were under the age of 25, she said.
The problem had become so bad that several delivery teams known to the RHA had started to mothball parts of their HGV fleets, the RHA spokeswoman claimed.
Meanwhile, almost all respondents (91%) to a Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) survey of 600 employers carried out last year said they had little or no capacity to take on extra work.
The UK’s driver workforce was lean and had minimal spare capacity, Kevin Green, REC chief executive said.
“The driver shortage has been a growing concern in the industry in recent years but has become a critical issue in the last few months,” he added.