The statistics make grim reading. Estimates obtained by Building suggest that the sector will have a shortfall of about 16,000 by the time the European Working Time Directive is implemented in March 2005. And at that point, things will get much worse because the average time drivers can work a week will be cut from 68 hours to 48.
The looming crisis is already hurting materials suppliers. Two manufacturers, H+H Celcon and Marley Building Materials, have experienced problems in the past two months. Geoff Lampard, distribution director at Marley, reckons that the shortage began to grip the industry from the middle of March. His firm has had supplies waiting for as long as five days before a lorry could be found to take them to site.
"There's frustration that you have the product in the yard and a customer for it, but you can only offer a delivery time of four to five days," says Lampard. "The flexibility of delivering quickly has gone." He stresses that these delays have yet to affect build times – "there's two to three days worth of stock on site" – but there are doubts about what will happen if the shortage of drivers worsens. "We're all waking up to this late," he says.
Celcon, which operates largely in the housing sectors, has spent the past month frantically trying to ensure that deliveries are made on time by signing up spare drivers. The firm, which outsources some of its road haulage to RDL Distribution, is on the lookout for workers who are finishing contracts in other sectors. Celcon is trying to cope with steeply rising demand for its products in the first three months of the year, and has instructed its sales force to keep their eyes peeled for truckers. One quickwitted staff member recently heard of a driver whose deal delivering frozen chickens was ending, and signed him up. RDL general manager Andy Pennell, who described demand in the construction sector in April as "absolutely ballistic", says that the labour shortage is restricting supply. "All industries are competing for the same resources in terms of lorries and drivers. There's a definite squeeze at the moment," he says.
The concern has filtered through to trade associations, including the Construction Products Association and the Quarry Products Association. The CPA has started to collate the experiences and opinions of its members. The QPA has come up with a more specific estimate for the cost of the Working Time Directive to construction (see "Crisis costs"). Jerry McLaughlin, the QPA's economist, says the association's research has drawn up a disturbing picture: "There is an issue regardless of the directive – that only adds to a problem that exists anyway."
McLaughlin reckons that there is a particular problem for drivers working in construction, as most of the 80,000 drivers in the road haulage sector are self-employed. Conditions for self-employed truckers compare unfavourably with those enjoyed by larger operators such as Eddie Stobart and Wincanton Logistics. "The reality is it's a pretty hard life. When you are part of a larger fleet there are perhaps longer journeys, a clearer pattern of work and more comfortable working environments, such as air-conditioned cabs." The nature of the journeys in construction – largely restricted to the UK and dropping off in city-centre sites – also lessens the sector's appeal.
His view is backed by Gary Sullivan, director at logistics specialist Wilson James and a former trucker himself. Sullivan describes the environment for lorry drivers delivering to construction sites as "tough" – with some understatement. "You are dealing with gangers and foremen in construction, who are quite demanding and robust in dealing with truck drivers. If you can't stick up for yourself you get walked over." Perhaps as a result of his personal experiences, Sullivan says his firm prides itself on how it treats its drivers. "We get on with them great," he enthuses. "We treat them with respect – even down to gimmicks like giving them choc ices on hot summer days."
It seems the image of the trucker is about as poor as that of the construction worker. In fact, the two trades have many similarities – an ageing white male workforce, mostly self-employed, poor working conditions, lack of industry training and the constant struggle to comply with regulations. "The perception is that lorry drivers are people who can't do any better for themselves, so they end up driving a lorry," says Marley's Lampard.
The image of the tattoo-covered, greasy-food-eating Pirelli calendar fan seems to have stuck. But as Ruth Pott, head of employment at the Road Haulage Association, argues, modern technology means you no longer need bulging muscles to drive a lorry. And new initiatives instigated by bodies such as the Freight Transport Association are trying to make the profession more appealing to younger school leavers. But it seems the haulage industry is struggling along an uphill gradient.
The outlook is ominous. Brian Rogan, contracts manager at steelwork contractor Cleveland Bridge, foresees trouble ahead. His firm, which uses outside haulage firms, has not yet been hit by the driver shortage but he is fully aware of the problem. "At the moment you can see the smoke. Somewhere down the line we will see the fire."