British recruitment drive for builders sparks fear of exodus

Sites closed due to Covid-19 construction ban forcing skilled machine operators to leave

UK construction companies are actively recruiting Irish workers, sparking fears of a major skills exodus as most building sites remain closed due to Covid-19 restrictions.

The Irish Plant Contractors Association (IPCA) is concerned that thousands of skilled machine operators are being targeted, saying up to six British firms are now stepping up advertising campaigns.

It believes about 2,500 people who were working in Ireland have already accepted positions and that the trend threatens to undermine Irish building projects.

As well as demand on major UK projects such as the HS2 high-speed rail line, the rush for Irish workers is being fuelled by Brexit and its implications for EU-sourced employment in Britain. However, the IPCA, which represents subcontractors providing heavy machinery, believes the ongoing Covid-19 closures are the biggest issue.


Plant hire workers

"[They] operate primarily in greenfield sites all over Ireland. These people have very little contact with other people and [yet] they aren't allowed to work," said IPCA chief executive Brian Coogan. "There is no real thought going into this complete lockdown."

Plant hire workers believe they could be safely preparing the groundwork for future projects once restrictions are eased. Without them, they say, such projects run the risk of major delays.

The IPCA-linked trade magazine Machinery Movers has been running advertisements for a number of major UK recruiters including Flannery and M O'Brien.

Flannery's strategic manager Chris Matthew said the company had an Irish heritage and had always advertised in Ireland. However, it is only about to begin its 2021 campaign and has no intention of increasing its budget.

Plant hire workers in Ireland typically earn about €800 per week after tax, according to industry figures, but UK rivals are believed to be offering up to double that wage, with some running major projects also offering accommodation.

"You always have Irish workers going over to the UK but since Brexit these firms can no longer hire from Eastern Europe and so Ireland has become the perfect recruitment ground," Mr Coogan said.

Housing schemes

The Dublin-based Shannon Valley Group has so far lost about 10 staff to the UK with its Irish operations at a halt but for a handful of projects. It normally operates on 25-30 sites at a time including major housing schemes.

"The Government is crying out for houses and yet we could have been doing all the preparatory [site] work and interfering with nobody but it hasn't happened," said company director Mick English.

Last year, two-year-old Dublin company Site Control had a €4 million turnover but is now watching its bank balance slowly depleting. The company estimates it is working at about 15 per cent capacity. Director Eamon McCafferty said two of about 22 staff have left for the UK. *

The Construction Industry Federation, which has no association with the IPCA, said the sector's "brawn and brain drain" was applicable across the jobs spectrum. A spokesman said early signs of departures for the UK are expected to accelerate as long as the industry remains effectively shut.

The Department of Housing said the Government’s decision on construction was based on public health advice, reflecting the seriousness of the virus spread. It noted certain exemptions in essential construction activity and said the overall situation would be considered on April 5th.

*This article was amended on March 12th 2021

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times