The children's’ hospital build-cost omnishambles has exposed the incompetence of “professional people” who would like to be considered as experts in their field. Real questions have to be asked about the tender process for such projects and the practice of setting estimates ahead of a tender process must really be called into question, because it seems to me that every a large-scale capital project is announced with an estimated cost, the tender price at least doubles and the actual completed cost may be three times the original estimate. We’ve seen it with the National Broadband Plan (NBP) and now again with the Children's’ hospital.
Our inglorious Government has, in recent times, unveiled a far-reaching schedule of capital investment programmes aimed at addressing some of the deficiencies in our nation’s infrastructure, but we face an age-old problem yet again – a lack of skilled labour.
All the funding in the world won’t put the people who know what they are doing in place. And if those people aren’t there to put the bricks on mortar, we are going nowhere and we are going there at a million-miles-a-minute. As a nation, zombified by the recession and the complete collapse of the construction industry only a few short years ago, we have blindly-walked into a situation where we now have a 'manpower' crisis.
Just three short years ago, in 2015, less than half of all builders identified a shortage of labour as a problem. Today that number stands at 86%. That is according to a recent survey conducted by two DIT academics for the Construction Industry Federation. The authors of the report, Eoghan Ó Murchadha and Dr Roisin Murphy, specifically pointed to the dramatic downturn in applicants applying for apprenticeships in the traditional wet trades, such as; bricklaying, plastering, tiling, and decorating. The notable decline has been continuing despite the industry undergoing a sustained recovery over the last half-decade.
Looking at some of the numbers, we can see that in 2006, 300 people registered for apprenticeships as plasterers, 161 as painters and decorators, 679 as bricklayers, and 43 as floor and wall-tilers. The decline in apprenticeships is staggering when we analyze the 2017 numbers. 2017 saw; 30 apprentices register to train as plasterers, 45 as painters and decorators, 65 as bricklayers, coupled with the grand total of zero registering as apprentice-tilers.
A little bit of self-ownership is needed in the industry also, and firms must go about putting their own houses in order. Some firms have earned a poor reputation as employers, expecting too much of skilled workers for too little in return. The industry is traditionally autocratic, and in a modern world full of international opportunity, this will likely have to change.
Profit margins in the sector, currently at 1%-1.5%, are too low to support the levels of innovation which are now required to bring the industry into the 21st century. At a time when major cities are performing well, it is a totally different story as far as building in rural regions is concerned. So long as the replacement cost of buildings in rural regions is so far above their market value, the growth will continue to lag in those areas.
I think it would be a good approach by Government, to look at rolling out the capital programme in a structured, phased way. This should help to attract people with the construction skills we need back home from overseas, as they will be satisfied that they will have a sustainable career for at least 5-10 years should they decide to return. In addition, the people whom we are trying to attract back to Ireland need to have confidence that the National Development Plan will be delivered by Government and that the medium-term economic outlook is fairly solid.
I know from experience that the career path offered by apprenticeships is a very good one. Schools and college careers guidance teachers need to be looking at apprenticeships, not as a second option or back up plan but as a real career path for pupils and students who are looking to have a professional trade. The good news, if you can call it that, is that a lack of skilled labour is not a problem which is unique to Ireland. Shortages of construction skills have reached disastrous proportions in London, where the city’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has launched a plan aimed at tackling the problem. In the past five years, take up of apprenticeships in the UK have halved. Many people in the known over there will point to low pay and poor career progression prospects as a cause for the halving of the numbers entering apprenticeships. Approximately 30% of the construction workforce in London come from other countries across the EU. It remains to be seen how Brexit will affect that, but already many who have traditionally been employed in the sector in London are returning home to ever-more prosperous economies in their home countries.
The reality today is that the construction, both in Ireland and across the developed world, is facing a new crisis. The stagnation and regression which set the agenda during the collapse are now over. However, the problems we are facing today are, essentially, the longer-term effects of the crash. Many young people simply do not have confidence in the sector to provide them with a sustainable, improving career, and in many ways, looking at the boom and bust cycle construction has faced over the last half a century, they may not be very far wrong. The construction skills crisis, whether we like it or not, will be with us for the foreseeable future, and perhaps beyond that, no matter the actions are taken by the industry or Government. But that does not mean we must do nothing, in fact, it means quite the opposite. We must do something and we must do something significant, very, very fast.
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