WHEN the economic downturn hit us so suddenly 10 years ago, the construction industry was decimated in almost one fell swoop. Building workers who had been making great money – and spending it too with gleeful abandon – were faced with bleak prospects and it was a case of either going on the dole, or emigrating if you were young and able enough to do so.
As a result, Ireland lost a generation of building workers, many of whom made good lives for themselves abroad, some putting down roots in other countries. One in every two workers who lost their jobs in Ireland between 2007 and 2012 had previously been employed in construction.
During the boom years, Irish construction workers were heavily augmented by hard-working immigrants from eastern European countries such as Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, most of whom left Ireland when the building work dried up and subsequently returned to their own countries, which are beginning to feel and enjoy the benefits of EU membership, to settle down there.
The biggest deficit caused by the collapse of the construction industry was in the availability of skilled labour, exacerbated by the discontinuation of many apprenticeship schemes during the economic downturn. In recent years, the Department of Education and Skills has been re-introducing these badly-needed apprenticeship schemes which will go some way towards addressing that deficit.
Employment in the construction sector last year was 46% lower than it was in 2007, despite the fact that over 50,000 jobs have been created in the construction industry since the lowest point of the recession in 2013, regaining less than a third of all the jobs lost during the crisis. With the demand for more new housing and the government’s big plans for infrastructural work in the Project Ireland 2040 capital expenditure programme, the construction industry must attract in a lot more talent to be able to deliver.
It is estimated that the sector needs to attract over 112,000 workers into the industry up to 2020 to ensure that Ireland can deliver on its housing and infrastructure targets. This is quite a tall order and it is difficult to envisage how they are going to manage it.
As well as the apprenticeship schemes, the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) wants school career guidance counsellors to extol the benefits of a career in construction, encourage people who left the industry to return to it and to tap into the Diaspora to encourage workers with the necessary skills to return home. All easier said than done.