At the launch of every new large van in the past few years, the manufacturer has spoken about how the parcel-delivery market is only going to increase in the UK and across Europe. Both Mercedes and Volkswagen have considered this very carefully while designing the latest Sprinter and Crafter, while other brands will no doubt do the same with their next large vans.

While there might be plans for autonomous vehicles manned by a single person responsible for final-metre deliveries, that remains a dream that is still decades away. In the short term, there is a real need for drivers that fleets are struggling to meet.

The latest UK Report on Jobs, compiled by KPMG and the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), shows that demand for workers is outstripping supply, with appointments rising at the slowest rate since April 2017.

The biggest concern for van fleet managers, however, lies in the temporary job market. The blue-collar sector, which is the one that the Report on Jobs puts van drivers into, had the highest level of demand for workers in December, fuelled in part by the seasonal need for parcel delivery.

Recruitment consultants were asked which skill shortages they had found when trying to fill roles, and professional drivers came up as being in short supply.

“The pre-Christmas rush put a squeeze on logistics jobs in December so it was no surprise to see blue-collar roles topping the skills shortage list in this survey,” said Neil Carberry, the REC chief executive.

James Stewart, vice-chair at KPMG stressed that December is a traditionally lean time for hiring new staff, but that this was particularly amplified by one major factor – Brexit.

“A lack of work-ready candidates is really beginning to bite UK businesses and the situation is worsening,” said Stewart. “Many of the UK’s main sectors are now struggling to hire staff. It really is a candidates’ market.”

The situation is at the forefront of the Freight Transport Association’s mind; head of vans at the FTA, Mark Cartwright says that it could only worsen.

“The UK’s vans sector employs more than 205,000 drivers, almost 10% of whom are EU nationals,” he said. “And with the latest White Paper on immigration indicating that these people will no longer be deemed ‘skilled’ by the government, their loss to a sector which is growing rapidly and is at the heart of life in the UK could be catastrophic.”

Fleets seeking a solution will not get one as things stand, with neither recruitment experts, industry bodies nor government having a simple answer. However, there would appear to be things that fleet managers and HR professionals can do to steel themselves for any potential impact of Brexit.

Much of this involves thinking beyond recently used marketing methods and expanding to use the full range of those available. Cartwright suggests advertising in the local press, local job centres and community boards at local leisure and community centres. Essentially, any public building that has good footfall of the people who fit fleets’ needs.

“Those leaving the armed forces often have HGV or logistics qualifications,” said Cartwright. “Consider approaching your local barracks to advertise vacancies for those ending their commissions.”

Just being observant is also advocated. One employer told of how they spotted a worker going above and beyond while working in a local supermarket. He approached them, invited them in for a chat and was able to offer them a job.

Another factor that has arisen is pay. The UK Report on Jobs recorded a marked increase in permanent and temporary wages across all four areas of England that it monitored – London, the south, the Midlands and the north.

“Companies have to offer increasingly attractive packages to tempt people,” said KPMG’s James Stewart.

With this in mind, companies may be inclined to lower their average recruiting age. Cartwright says.

“Many sixth form colleges and secondary schools run careers events, and stage talks for their leavers to highlight local employers – this should be a priority for businesses looking to recruit talented youngsters, to ensure that these young people consider logistics as a career,” he explains.

There is also the extra consideration of training when recruiting, which brings an additional expense, not to mention time. The FTA hopes to pressure government to redirect unused funds from the apprenticeship levy into meaningful training.

There remains a large amount of uncertainty, though, with the industry seemingly united in pushing for greater clarity before 29 March.

Tom Webster