The Irish construction sector is somewhere between finding its feet and breaking into a sprint depending on who you talk to and where in the country you visit.
Those who work in construction recruitment now speak of a change in emphasis from expatriation to repatriation, impending personnel shortages and the challenge of finding quality staff, as Martin Foran found out.
There’s no doubting the fact that there’s been a huge increase in the number of jobs available for Irish construction professionals over the past year to eighteen months.
Among areas of activity to feature significantly are commercial and office space-related projects including fit-outs and refurbishments.
Data centres, health care and education projects are also cited as major creators of employment by recruitment companies in the market.
One person who has noticed a huge resurgence in employment numbers in this sector is James Lundy, business manager with Hays.
“Figures for 2014 probably saw a 90% increase of jobs registered in the construction and property industry for Hays,” he says.
Many others see a similar rise. All however are quick to point out that it is coming off of quite a low base which was a natural and direct result of the downturn.
“Areas like architecture and civil and structural engineering suffered more than most,” says Lundy. “But we’ve seen – in the last twelve months in particular – that all these areas have come back strongly.
“And in the last six months, architecture and civil engineering have taken off ten-fold,” Lundy adds.
“Architectural technicians and project architects are in high demand again.”
James also mentions building services as well as general contracting and facilities management as other occupations that are experiencing a resurgence in terms of demand.
BIM (Building Information Modelling) is also something about which there is a definite “buzz” right now.
Contractors are definitely looking for BIM. That is the clear message here.
“There is probably no one area that is not recruiting at the moment – which is massively positive,” sums up James Lundy.
The biggest shortage in the market is probably at the junior to intermediate level, he adds.
It is hardly surprising. Construction had been something of a dirty word in households for a time, most recruiters acknowledge.
Any young person applying for college courses might well have had parents pointing them in different directions.
While steps are afoot to deal with this now, recruitment outside of the country or “repatriation” is a huge factor of the current construction employment market.
There are good positions on offer here now for anyone tempted to come home, Lundy says. “The biggest switch is that we have gone form a temporary market to predominantly permanent roles.
“I’d say eighty-five percent of jobs on offer are permanent roles now. Benefits are coming back in. There are good packages coming back.”
“Salaries are rising slightly,” says Michael Byrne, owner of 3D Personnel, on this note. However, here Byrne flags another issue:
“We have seen already in Northern Ireland when companies have priced work at lower rates and then when it comes to getting the staff they need they can’t get them for the prices they have quoted.
“So rates need to be looked at in general.”
Meanwhile, it’s not just professionals that are in demand of course points out Michael. He says that, on the trade or “blue collar” side it is very hard to get advanced scaffolders and crane drivers. Carpenters are in high demand too.
“So many people gave up their tickets and the older generation moved into different fields,” he says. “There is a shortage.”
Echoing James Lundy, Byrne says that on the professional side there is a shortage of Engineers and also, he says, QSs.
Michael whose company has offices in Poland, Ireland and the UK, says that, in his view, it has really been in the last six months that things have picked up.
On an encouraging note Michael Byrne has noted a lot more smaller companies – like the “one man band”, subcontractors-types – phoning in.
“They don’t carry staff themselves,” says Michael. “They want a quick uplift.”
“We see activity in a broad spectrum in Ireland,” says Michael Byrne. “However housing is lagging behind still.”
The fact that there is less happening there means that it is harder to get staff with residential experience when projects do arise of course.
At ICDS Recruitment Consultants, director Barry Kelly says for him the “hot spots” at the moment include schools, hospitals and data centres.
“I think things are very positive in Ireland mainly inside the M50,” he says. This of course is echoed by others in the industry.
“We have companies coming all the time to us and looking for staff. The rate of acceleration has increased in the last nine months.”
As for repatriation: “We are bringing people back from the UK, Europe, Australia, Canada and the Middle East and we are always recruiting from the 32 counties for clients nationwide,” says Barry.
Recruiting from abroad is often to do with contacts, keeping an eye on trends in the Irish diaspora and of course, having a presence in overseas locations as many of the recruitment companies like ICDS do.
Quantity Surveyors, Estimators, Project and Contract Managers and people with BIM are in demand now from Barry’s experience.
“You find people are retraining to get involved in BIM,” he adds.
Meanwhile a big increase in design from a recruitment perspective has been noticed by manager of engineering and operations at Brightwater, Cathal O Donnell.
Cathal notes that this is “really positive” as the actual build on the construction usually comes six to nine months after such an increase, he points out.
“There are opportunities out there,” asserts Cathal. CAD people and Revit people are in demand as are Quantity Surveyors also, he notes.
“For a long time I did a lot of expatriation to the Middle East and North Africa and now I’m probably doing more repatriation,” Cathal says.
There are attractive jobs being offered, Cathal agrees. “There is competition back in the market.
“We have seen that candidates will have a couple of options now as opposed to having to take the first that comes along.
Some of the consultancies are starting back with their graduate schemes which is great. We are in a much better place than twelve to eighteen months ago.”
As activity starts to increase there is a possibility of seeing a shortfall from a staffing perspective however, cautions Cathal O Donnell.
Of course opinions vary as to how far out we are from a major shortfall. Paraic Kelly, founder and managing director of constuctionjobs.ie, an online jobs board for construction engineering professionals, says that if there is a remarkable increase in activity then it will be obvious.
However, “because we haven’t nationwide recovery and it’s dominated in the Dublin area we can’t say ‘yes there is a shortage’, but where the shortage is coming into play is in the quality.
“I’d say about fifty percent of our applications are for jobs in Dublin at the moment,” continues Kelly.
“We always had an international element as well and you’d have about thirty percent of applications still going for jobs advertised abroad.”
There is little surprise perhaps. Irish professionals have always served growing markets in the rest of the world, particularly in recent years – from reconstruction in Christchuch New Zealand to projects in Perth, Australia, the Middle East, North Africa, Canada and of course, London.
It’s clearly not a simple matter of snapping our fingers and expecting the people to come back or for overseas competition to cease.
As for those abroad, many have naturally settled into new lives. Recruiters point to the fact that often these are people with families who are that little more senior in their careers.
That could threaten a particular shortage in terms of staff at that level of experience here at home, it is noted.
And it is not just family and quality of life reasons that stop people from wanting to uproot themselves.
In areas like the Middle East and London there are financial reasons such as attractive tax regimes and the high value of Sterling versus the Euro.
And yet, as Cathal O Donnell says: “I think the growth in the industry is going to be determined by the staffing levels and the amount of candidates still available and in Ireland.”
With so many having left the industry, others having moved abroad and a new crop of graduates not really there just yet in significant numbers, it is indeed a challenge.
Yet this particular challenge has been brought about by good news and positive developments.
Top professions in demand
All recruiters who spoke with Construction agreed that there are quality jobs on offer now in Ireland with real incentives and benefits for successful candidates. Among the areas where demand is currently strong are included:
• Architects and architectural technicians
• BIM / revit skills
• Engineers – structural and civil
• Quantity surveyors
• Project and contract managers