The fact that the haulage industry estimates it’s short of 100,000 HGV drivers thanks to a potent cocktail of Covid and Brexit, among other factors, has come as a surprise to many, with pictures of gaps on supermarket shelves across social media amid terrified whispers of low stock levels and price hikes in the run-up to Christmas.
But one person it hasn’t come as a total surprise to is Beth Whittaker, chief HR officer for the UK and Ireland at environmental solutions firm Veolia, whose extensive workforce planning and data insights mean she and her team predicted that problems might be on the horizon months in advance – and, crucially, were able to prepare. With 30,000 HGV driving tests cancelled last year because of the pandemic, and private sector IR35 rules recently introduced, alongside an ageing workforce, loss of EU drivers because of Brexit and other problems caused by the pandemic, all within the space of a few months, the shortage, explains Whittaker, was “always going to happen”. “We at Veolia have been hit significantly by the driver shortage, as well as the shortage of engineers. They’re the backbone of our business,” she adds.
However, the firm has worked hard to mitigate its labour supply issues thanks to its “solutions-driven” approach and responding to the issue in the medium and long term as well as the short. Rather than just “throwing money at the situation” and plugging the gap right now, Whittaker explains, she aims to have the gap still plugged in three years’ time. “It might be that right now we recruit more fully-qualified drivers or we upskill our existing loaders into drivers, but that’s not a sustainable solution,” she says.
Instead, the company has focused heavily on looking outside the usual talent pools for staff, focusing a lot of its efforts on recruiting women and veterans to fill vacancies, and has a prolific apprenticeship team which offers qualifications in subjects including driving and engineering in order to get young people into the business at the start of their careers, currently supporting some 300 apprentices across a range of subjects. The firm also works with schools to promote careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to female students. “We’re very focused on taking a problem, flipping it round and thriving as a result of it. Innovation is really important,” says Whittaker. “But it’s not just the preserve of the R&D department – everyone fosters that entrepreneurial spirit, including the HR team.”
And it’s that focus on innovation that led Whittaker, who has worked in HR for 22 years, to create and implement the firm’s first people strategy to sit alongside the organisation’s wider four-year business strategy – Impact 2023 – with the aim to “connect the business’s people to its purpose to drive performance”. Launched in March 2020 to “amazing” feedback, three weeks before the country went into lockdown and after speaking to hundreds of staff members about their experiences, the firm’s people strategy comprises four workstreams – purpose led, change capability, future of work and stakeholder engagement – under which sit 23 ‘tactics’, each with its own roadmap, set of deliverables and HR manager to oversee it. And with 70 of the firm’s 100-strong HR team coming forward to work on a tactic, Whittaker was keen that they choose something away from their day job. “Our payroll manager is exploring opportunities for our mature workforce, and the contracts and onboarding manager leads mobility,” Whittaker explains. “The HR team is entirely empowered to deliver it their way.”
With the company also having launched its ‘raison d’être’ to be a purpose-led business, as well as an inclusion strategy following six months of focus groups, and a completely refreshed employer brand, every single part of the strategy is now in progress, says Whittaker. Even Covid, which had threatened to derail the work after the team needed to take a four-month hiatus from implementation to manage the company’s response to the pandemic, turned out to be a positive, with them regrouping to realise that not only had nothing happened to upset their plans, the pandemic had actually accelerated some elements, and opportunities to step things up were “right in front of us”. “With some of the future of work elements, some aspects might have taken three or four years if it hadn’t been for Covid,” adds Whittaker.
One key challenge for the people strategy, Whittaker says, has been ensuring it benefits operative staff working on the front line as much as those based in an office – more than 9,000 of the firm’s staff don’t have an email address, making communication and engagement more difficult. But particularly since their “heroic” work during the pandemic – one in seven people in the UK are touched by Veolia’s services on any given day, and its staff were bestowed ‘key worker’ status during lockdown – Whittaker is keen to involve everyone in the changes. “They might not wear capes, but they’re certainly our heroes,” she says. “We work hard to get everyone involved as much as possible. We don’t want to leave anybody out.”
While Whittaker is keen for the strategy to lead to big improvements for the every member of staff during its four-year lifespan (“Whether or not they know it’s come from HR”), she also has one eye firmly on the bigger picture: namely the role Veolia has in sustainability and the climate crisis, and its workforce’s place in that: whether it’s improving customers’ environmental impact or simply going paper free. “We have the ability to directly impact in a big way,” she says. “Our staff do things that make improvements to the planet for their children and grandchildren. They’re playing a really important role in something that’s bigger than any of us.”