Carpenters, electricians, plumbers, bricklayers: there will always be work for those who can fix or make things. But there are – often quite literally – many miles between a steady, secure job in your home country and one that unemployment has forced you to take in Canada or Australia.
On the other hand, trades offer an internationally-recognised qualification and some tradespeople choose to take the opportunity to work abroad. So what are the push and pull factors weighing on them as they decide whether to stay or go?
This year tradespeople are finding very good employment prospects in Ireland and so there are fewer leaving than during the peak of the recession. As it stands, Ireland does not have enough carpenters, steel fixers or electricians: we are not training enough of them or doing enough to entice them back from overseas.
Tom McHugh is director of ICDS, an organisation comprised of independent companies that provide HR solutions to construction, manufacturing and general engineering industries. “We have had eight to nine years of almost nobody in apprenticeships in Ireland and people in their 50s about to leave the industry. The shortage of carpenters, engineers and steel fixers is a big problem.”
Canada has been a popular destination for Irish tradespeople, but the numbers going there are falling, says Ruairi Spillane of OutpostRecruitment.
“In 2012 and 2013, the visa allocation for Ireland sold out in less than hour whereas this year some visas remained unclaimed – although the visa allocation has risen from 6,500 to 10,700. Toronto and Vancouver are the main hot spots as the resource-heavy provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan have slowed down.”
If Donald Trump makes good on a promise to invest in construction over the course of his presidency, there may also be opportunities for Irish tradespeople and construction workers – provided they can get work visas – in the United States.
So where is hiring?
Most of the jobs are in Europe, the UK, New Zealand and Australia, though it is slowing down somewhat. In Canada, Toronto and Vancouver are hot spots, according to Spillane.
Last year, Construction News reported that a bricklayer in London could earn about £60,000 (€70,000) a year – their pay has increased faster than the average British salary. Mercury Engineering, for example, is one company that has a good name in Europe and it is involved in big projects in Sweden and Denmark.
McHugh says his firm is securing jobs for tradespeople throughout Europe, with several hundred working in Holland, Belgium and Sweden. “There is a particularly big demand for industrial electricians all over Europe, driven by the growth of data centres. Irish electricians are extremely valued as they are considered to be better trained, and they are English-speaking which is helpful. Our system is not producing enough of them.” About 80 per cent of ICDS workers are from Ireland’s western seaboard.
Will Rush of Hays Worldwide Recruitment says Australia is one of the most popular destinations for Irish carpenters in search of work. "Australia-wide, carpenters remain the most sought-after trade and this trend is not expected to change any time soon," he says.
“Formwork and experienced commercial carpenters are also needed as a number of new high-rise developments come out of the ground. Experienced commercial tradespeople, including plumbers, electricians and painter-decorators are also sought in response to new developments.”
He adds that good labourers are also needed.
There's still plenty of work available in New Zealand. Glenn Davis, who works with New Zealand Skills in Demand, says there are more construction jobs in booming Auckland than in Christchurch. "There are roles for plumbers, electricians, crane operators, forklift drivers, carpenters and bricklayers. Ceiling fixers are in particularly short supply."
There are not many Irish tradespeople heading to the Middle East, as that labour is primarily provided by workers from developing countries such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines. This is because construction firms can pay them a lot less than they would a worker from Ireland.
Jobs in the construction industry are among those that are vulnerable to mechanisation and human workers may be replaced with robots. But, says Paraic Kelly of ConstructionJobs.ie, there will always be a need for people to run those machines. "If a steel fixer becomes mechanised, his skill will go to another area. Manual work needs to be valued and we need to stop looking down on craftsmen and skills."
Salary, benefits and working hours in key destinations. How do they compare to Ireland?
McHugh from the ICDS Group says tradespeople working in Europe have a steady job with take-home pay of between €750 and €1,000 per week. Their transport costs are covered by ICDS and so is accommodation, which is the single biggest expense for any worker. He adds that the industry, although it has small peaks and troughs, is less cyclical than in Ireland.
Spillane of Outpost says salaries are probably higher in Canada than in Ireland. Matt Foster of publishing company and employment consultant Emap says pay and conditions in the UK are now better than in Australia.
According to the Payscale salary guide, the average pay for a carpenter in Australia is A$29.36 per hour (€21), in Canada it is C$24.47 (€17.70) and in the UK it is £12.20 (€14). This compares with €15.06 per hour they earn here. Bear in mind that living costs differ from country to country. The cost of living in Australia, for instance, is higher than in Ireland. The cost of living in a city will also be higher than in the countryside.
Will Rush of Hays recruitment says that in Australia qualified tradespeople can expect to earn A$30-35 (€21-25) per hour as a base rate with overtime paid anywhere from time and a half to double time. Labourers and trade assistants are paid anywhere from A$25 (€18) and up with the same overtime rates.
Davis of New Zealand Skills in Demand says that the salaries are fairly similar to those in Ireland.
What do you need to know before you apply? How do you get your qualifications accredited?
Tradespeople who want to work in Europe may have to take an equivalent exam to get their qualifications recognised. In Sweden, for instance, a concrete framer may need to have their qualification converted. On the other hand, electricians may have more mobility. Labour suppliers, such as ICDS, will have done the groundwork with regard to registration, health and safety, and tax.
Those heading to Australia generally would be required to obtain their own working visa to begin with, but there may be opportunities for sponsorship for working holiday visa candidates, says Will Rush of Hays.
Spillane points out that it is fairly easy for those under 35 to get a two-year work permit for Canada.
In Australia, carpenters, painter-decorators, bricklayers and labourers do not need to retrain or get their skills accredited, although plumbers and electricians need to have their skills assessed and their licences transferred. "You can begin the process before you arrive with a business such as The Down Under Centre," Rush explains.
“Once you arrive you will need to collect a provisional licence and do additional training before gaining a full practising licence. Any construction site worker will also need to obtain a white card – similar to the CSCS [Construction Skills Certification Scheme] card – before being allowed on any site. This can be done online or as a one-day course which will course roughly A$100 (€70).”
In New Zealand, carpenters and plumbers need to have their qualifications recognised by the NZ Qualifications Authority and may have to do a week-long course. New Zealand Skills in Demand helps applicants through the immigration process and any red tape.
How to get a job
ICDS will have a list of available roles in European countries, while Hays, which is one of the largest recruitment firms in the world, has a good overview of trade jobs abroad, especially in Australia and New Zealand.
For Australia, the website seek.com.au has good job listings. For New Zealand, check out seek.com.nz or trademe.co.nz. In Canada, have a look at BCJobs.ca for jobs in Vancouver and its province, British Columbia, or ca.indeed.com for nationwide listings.