If you build it . . . Why few emigrant builders are moving home

Ireland needs its expat construction workers back. But how can we entice them home?

 

The boom is getting “even more boomer”. Well, according to the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) at least, which says 112,000 workers will be required to deliver €17.8 billion worth of housing, infrastructure and foreign direct investment projects over the next three years.

Ireland will need 15,200 electricians, 7,800 bricklayers, 11,800 plumbers, 30,800 carpenters and joiners, 13,900 plasterers and tilers, 9,400 painters and decorators, 9,600 managers, 18,100 operatives, and 27,600 general labourers by 2020, the CIF says.

And that’s not to mention the plane-loads of architects, engineers, quantity surveyors and project managers also required.

The CIF recently launched a new recruitment website targeting Irish emigrants working in the trades and construction professions. But will they respond to the call?

Irish Times Abroad ran an online survey in March to ask workers’ views on how they see the industry from overseas, how opportunities compare between Ireland and where they currently live, and what they are hearing about what it is really like to work in construction in Ireland today.

With just over 300 participants, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions from the multiple choice answers, but the open-text responses reveal interesting trends and opinions on salaries, career opportunities, boom-bust cycles, and personal factors that might draw construction workers back or keep them away.

Why did you emigrate?

Fewer than half of all respondents to the survey were working full-time in their chosen occupations before emigrating. One in four was unemployed. Australia was the most popular destination, followed by Britain, the US, Canada, the Middle East and New Zealand.

After completing a four-year trade and then not being able to work in the trade was depressing

“I qualified as an electrician in 2010 after completing a four-year apprenticeship. I was let go the day I qualified, like most other apprentices at the time. I went labouring for cash, but could not get anything more relevant to my trade. I’m not a snob, but after completing a four-year trade and then not being able to work in the trade was depressing,” said one worker who is currently living in Perth.

“I sent hundreds of applications for work but could barely get even a response,” said a New Zealand-based engineer who was let go from their job in Ireland in 2010. “I received an offer from a company in Christchurch after the earthquakes. The future was bleak for construction professionals in Ireland so I had no choice but to leave or else all my study and experience would have been wasted.”

Nine in 10 survey participants are now employed full-time in their chosen field, while just 2 per cent are out of work.

Career opportunities

Given that such a high proportion were unemployed before leaving a country in the midst of a recession, it is hardly surprising that 90 per cent of respondents said they would not have had the same opportunities professionally if they had stayed in Ireland.

The scale of the projects they have worked on since emigrating are incomparable to any in Ireland; many wrote about multi-million or multi-billion dollar oil and gas, mining or infrastructure projects.

For a chartered quantity surveyor working on the Doha Metro, “the opportunity to work on a brand new $45 billion. You’d bring me back to Ireland kicking and screaming,” he wrote.

Construction work on Grand Canal Docks, Dublin: workers returning home experience difficulty securing a job, low wages and precarious short-term contracts. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images
Construction work on Grand Canal Docks, Dublin: workers returning home experience difficulty securing a job, low wages and precarious short-term contracts. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

A mechanical engineer based in the Pilbara in Western Australia, working on the construction phase of Chevron’s Wheatstone LNG project, said he “could not do similar work in Ireland, or even in the UK”.

Better jobs

Bigger projects with more responsibility are not the only draw; nine in every 10 said the salary and benefits on offer where they lived were better than in Ireland.

A quantity surveyor working on Scirt, the NZD$2.5 billion (€1.58 billion) infrastructure rebuild of Christchurch in New Zealand after the earthquakes, doubled his salary since arriving in 2013. “I have risen from the ranks of junior QS to senior in four years, which could never happen in Ireland.”

Six in 10 said working conditions were better than in Ireland, while 76 per cent said their career prospects were superior, with more opportunities for promotion, and training provided by their employer.

When it comes to overall job satisfaction, 59 per cent said where they work now was better than Ireland, compared with just 9 per cent who said they were more satisfied in Ireland. Respondents in New Zealand and Australia, in particular, mentioned a better work-life balance and a more holistic workplace environment as significant benefits.

You are rewarded for hard work, it’s not about who you know

“You are rewarded for hard work, it’s not about who you know,” said one engineer working in New Zealand. “They also have a much better work-life balance. They organise regular company outings where you can bring your family. They genuinely care about your health and mental health. You’re not just a number to them.”

The way business is conducted in Ireland was criticised by several participants, who mentioned an “old boys club” approach where “things are still done on a wink and a nod, even at top-tier contracting levels” (according to a project manager, in the UK). Others mentioned higher standards of construction, design, and health and safety where they live.

Ireland from afar

While a significant proportion of respondents believe opportunities are improving for them at home, and “expect it would be easy to gain employment” (according to a project manager, in Australia), comments reflected concern about the sustainability of recovery, and the Dublin-centric focus of development.

“It appears to be improving given that employment is up, but given the lack of coherent strategic plans at a national level to deal with housing and infrastructure, it is heavily exposed to market trends,” wrote one town planner living in the UK, who is looking to return to Ireland after recently having her first child.

“I am starting to see more jobs from Ireland advertised over here,” writes another technician in the UK. “I’m very tentative about moving home in case it picks up and falls flat on its face again.”

Half of all respondents thought job prospects had improved, while 28 per cent said they were not sure, and 19 per cent said they didn’t believe they had. In the comments section, many of the “not sure” respondents said they “don’t care” or were “not interested”.

“I look on from the outside and think it’s not for me, as there is no comparison in the salary and cost of living,” wrote a mechanical engineering business-owner based in the UK.

Lower wages and higher taxes, along with fewer senior positions, were frequently mentioned as deterrents to moving back.

“[The economy] has grown, but for an expat to come home it is not yet good enough,” wrote a construction project manager based in Oman. “Rents are high, cost of living is very high, tax is high.”

The cost of car insurance, health insurance, and difficulty accessing loans and mortgages are also perceived as impediments.

“Things have improved but the pay is less than on offer in New Zealand,” wrote a father-of-two working in earthquake recovery in Christchurch, who is “undecided” about whether to stay or move back. “Looking at the financial cost of moving home with two kids is scary; car insurance and loans prove that Ireland has not progressed in terms of welcoming migrants back.”

While the housing shortage is a concern for many respondents, others see potential in it for builders and other construction workers.

Sector abroad

When asked how the construction sector was performing where they live, strong trends emerged between different countries.

“Booming” was a word used again and again to describe the UK, especially in London, but uncertainty over Britain’s exit from the European Union is causing concern.

Respondents in Western Australia described a slow-down, with many workers moving east to Sydney where there are more opportunities.

“There are so many Irish people returning home . . . the construction industry in Australia is not in as strong a position since the downturn in the resources sector,” wrote an electrician currently working on an LNG project in Darwin.

“Many high-paying [fly-in fly-out] jobs in remote locations are no longer available. But there is potentially a lot of work arising in the urban areas like Sydney.”

A quantity surveyor working on the Doha Metro wrote about how many projects across the Middle East had been postponed or cancelled after the fall in the oil price in 2014. “Many thousands of people have also lost their jobs; so far I have been lucky.”

Falling oil prices have also affected activity in Canada. According to one carpenter based in Alberta, the province is “in a recession but compared to Ireland, it’s still booming”.

Back in Ireland

For those who have already moved back to Ireland, the experience has been far from rosy. Of the 44 returned respondents, difficulty securing a job, low wages and precarious short-term contracts were commonly reported.

“Construction positions are on the up, but with stealth taxes and living costs, we are struggling financially, as bad as we were before we emigrated,” wrote a safety consultant and father of four, recently returned from Australia.

Others have had difficulty getting their overseas experience or qualifications recognised by employers in Ireland.

“The work-life balance is definitely better, and being nearer to family and friends is also a positive,” wrote a plumber recently returned from the US. But despite his 20 years’ experience, he said “hourly rates are poor” at about €18 per hour, and it was “very difficult to get work directly with a good company, as it is all sub-contracted out”.

A carpenter turned foreman, who worked in Australia and Canada before moving back to Ireland last year, said he found a job quickly on his return, but “pay rates don’t compare”.

“I lost my no-claims bonus, so van insurance is expensive, and I paid huge duty to bring back my tools in. [This is] very frustrating as the Government is supposedly encouraging people to return.”

Will they move home?

So where do the workers still living abroad see their future? Four in 10 said they definitely want to move back to live in Ireland; 14 per cent plan to do so within two years. Three in 10 are undecided, while another three in 10 do not plan to ever return. Some said they were willing to “go wherever the work is”.

“I’ve always said Ireland, but the longer I stay here the more this becomes home,” said a carpenter who has been working in New Zealand for six years, echoing a common response among those who are “undecided”.

Moving back to Ireland is more work and hassle than staying in Australia

“Moving back to Ireland is more work and hassle than staying in Australia,” wrote an engineering manager, currently working on the Metro system in Sydney. “Moving to Ireland would mean learning the Irish system, mostly from scratch. What’s the incentive?”

Some are trying their best to make the move home, but feel “stuck abroad”. One electrician living in Sydney with his partner and baby sees his future in Australia, but not for the lack of wanting to be back in Dublin. “We’ve been away for five years now. We do not have enough to buy a house. We are no longer entitled to any benefits in Ireland after so long. So at the moment we have to stay abroad. We live in Sydney, but Ireland will always be home.”

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