Overseas workers ‘don’t trust’ construction sector, builder says

‘Critical’ need to attract foreign workers to build houses thwarted by boom-bust cycle

Lingering doubts about the long-term sustainability of the Irish construction sector is thwarting efforts to recruit overseas workers, a major building company has said.

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has warned the Republic will need an influx of foreign workers to meet housing targets. It also cautioned that the shortage may, in the short term, add to rental pressures and housing demand.

The number of new homes built this year is expected to be about 19,000, but demand is closer to 30,000.

Collen Construction, which has been in business for more than 200 years and worked on projects for a range of clients from large multinationals to local authorities, said the situation was serious.


"It's absolutely critical that we get more people back, whether they are Irish who left or people currently living abroad who have skills," managing director Tommy Drumm said.

“I’m interviewing an Irish guy living in Estonia tomorrow. I’m currently talking to a project manager in Doha, a project manager in Sydney, an engineer in Turkey, and a logistics expert in Australia. We need to look overseas to fill these posts.

“We can’t get civil engineers. They’re extremely difficult to find. Particularly electrical co-ordinators are very difficult to find at the moment. Health-and-safety advisers are the same. There is serious pressure on trades like plastering and tiling as well.”

Not about money

Mr Drumm said money does not tend to be a problem when negotiating with potential recruits, but that concerns remain over the health of the sector following decades of boom-bust cycles.

“The key is the sense that if you come back, will the job that you take be sustainable or will it be a short-term situation,” he said. “The Irish construction sector has been cyclical. Every decade there’s been a downturn over the last 40 years.

“It’s a brave decision to make the move, pull the family and come back, maybe feeling will the Irish construction sector peak any time soon and will they find themselves in a similar situation.

“It’s a fine balance to build the confidence of those people you are interviewing, maybe by Skype. Christmas is a big time for people coming back home, so we’re trying to track people down and get them to come into us for interviews over the holidays.

“First of all, you’ve got to sell your company to them. They’re interviewing you as much as you’re interviewing them, certainly with millennials. Generally money won’t be a deal-breaker.”

Mr Drumm’s sentiments were echoed by house builder Glenveagh Properties, which said it had recently instigated an advertising campaign at Dublin Airport targeted at “highly skilled people with experience in construction and related fields” who are overseas.

Glenveagh chief executive Justin Bickle said the campaign has been “very effective” in helping it to recruit staff.

Work permits

Construction Industry Federation director general Tom Parlon said the lobby group had written to the Government seeking a relaxation of rules surrounding work permits.

“It is inevitable that we will need migration from outside of Ireland to provide skills,” he said. “We have made an application to change the work-permit situation to allow for people who have construction-related skills to come into the country.

“Recruiters are telling us it is difficult to get people from the European Economic Area. They don’t seem to be willing to travel. I was just with a major construction company that has been looking in Spain but is finding it very difficult. There’s big unemployment there but we just can’t find people.

“The feedback here is that we need to go further to find people and we’re competing against other countries. Is there any incentive? Not that I’m aware of.”

Shane Walsh, a project manager with Rossmore Civil Engineering, returned to the State three years ago after leaving for Australia eight years earlier for a one-year working holiday.

“The remuneration was always good in Australia,” he said. “Your transport was included. You got a good wage, but you really worked hard for it. I don’t think I could have found work in Ireland at the time.”

Mr Walsh said he decided to return home after starting a family, which was a “big challenge”, but he found new work “pretty quickly”.

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter