Fears are growing in the Irish construction sector that the flow of builders across the sea to the UK will become a permanent skills drain and will damage the industry long after it is permitted to reopen fully according to a number of sources in the sector.
Many commercial and industrial construction sites remain closed, even after house-builders were given the go-ahead to return to work earlier this month. A number of UK-based construction recruitment firms are now actively seeking Irish-based workers, it is understood.
This has led to a growing number of builders taking jobs elsewhere, particularly those who originally came to Ireland from eastern Europe.
Mick Flynn of Flynn Construction, which focuses on commercial projects such as data centres and healthcare facilities, said that he was directly aware of a growing number of firms who had lost skilled tradespeople that would be difficult to replace.
“It’s been going on for the past ten weeks,” he said. “We’ve been been losing skilled workers, especially carpenters, dryliners and facade specialists. I’m aware of one mechanical and electrical firm that has just lost a whole team of electricians.”
Of the 145,000 usually employed in construction, 80,000 are “hard hat” workers on sites. 40,000 of those were effectively put out of work when 782 of Ireland’s 1,500 sites were closed by the lockdown. Industry sources estimate that as many as 20,000 still have not returned to work and that many of these are foreign workers. A large proportion of these travelled to their home countries for Christmas but did not return to Ireland since because of the shutdown.
Flynn said he could not blame workers for leaving, as they had to make a living.
“We’re the only country in Europe that shut down construction,” he said. A serious concern has emerged amongst building workers that, even if the industry is fully reopened in the weeks to come, it could be shut down again in the autumn if Covid cases increase again.
“It’s extremely frustrating, as we’re going to really struggle to complete our projects whenever we get to open, due to the shortage of skilled workers,” said Flynn.
A spokesman for the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) said the organisation was concerned about the potential impact on the industry’s capacity.
“Just last week, the Government’s review of the National Development Plan highlighted concerns about the industry’s capacity in terms of delivering critical projects.
“There will be an impact on numbers in the industry in the coming months, as many employees have left those companies still affected by the unnecessary lockdown in the commercial sector.
“In addition, thousands of foreign workers have not returned to the industry after Christmas, due to the lockdown which began in January,” he said.
Skills shortages – combined with increases in material input prices due to Covid and Brexit – will put upward pressure on costs and dampen the impact of construction on the Irish economic recovery in the coming months, he said.
“Ireland is the only country in the world to have locked down its construction industry. What’s deeply frustrating is that this lockdown is an economic own-goal that’s lasted since January 4.
“The HSE’s evidence shows that the industry is safe and doesn’t contribute to the spread of Covid, due to its safety protocols. The Government has seen these data and must have accepted our safety record when deciding to reopen housing last month.”
“It defies logic – and many international clients whose projects have stalled are perplexed as to why all global manufacturing, all public sector projects, and all housing can continue… while their office and plants cannot,” he said.