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Focus on Construction: Volatility puts the building industry at a crossroads


Irish construction firm CJK Engineering ranks 17th on the overall list

Irish construction firm CJK Engineering ranks 17th on the overall list

Irish construction firm CJK Engineering ranks 17th on the overall list

The Irish construction sector is at a crossroads. On one level, it has made massive advances in recent years in terms of professionalism, health and safety, building standards and building methods.

Visit the head office of an ambitious construction firm and it looks more like what you would expect to see at tech firms such as Google.

Technology has been embraced and tools such as augmented reality headsets allow clients and architects to walk inside their blueprints so everything can be designed exactly as needed.

Those blueprints are increasingly for complex, hugely interesting developments that Irish-based firms might have shied away from in the past.

This has meant that working in construction is no longer necessarily the back-breaking, muddy, frost-bitten existence of old.

There is a much greater variety of hugely interesting — and very well-paid — roles now across the sector.

There is more diversity too, with real efforts made to try to attract more women into the construction workforce, and that is happening, albeit slowly.

The move by Irish construction firms, such as CJK Engineering, which ranks 17th on the list, to follow their big-tech clients abroad to build data centres and other facilities for them overseas has opened up an important new market for many.

This is particularly evident with mechanical and electrical special- ists who have built up massive experience here, dealing with the multinational sector where standards are very high.

But there are dark clouds on the horizon for the sector too. It found itself battling to keep building during Covid and appears to have ridden out that storm relatively unscathed. But it is the hidden impacts of massive volatility that are now causing concern.

The move by Bank of Ireland to appoint receivers to one of the country’s biggest construction firms, Roadbridge, a major employer in the west, will have sent shivers down the spines of those who know they are coming up against the very same challenges.

Skyrocketing construction material prices — with double-digit increases coming thick and fast for timber, insulation, steel and a range of other crucial products —have put even further pressure on already tight margins in the sector.

Public-sector contracts — for which the big operators compete — are loaded with risk, and every big project now is coming under renewed scrutiny before it gets the green light.

The fear for those who work in the sector has to be that for all the positive change that has taken place since it picked up the shattered pieces left behind by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, some fundamentals may have remained unchanged.

Right now, the domestic economy is chugging along, delivering new business and ambitious projects for the sector. But what happens when interest rates begin to climb and finance is not so cheap? What happens if the war in Ukraine continues to escalate and inflation keeps on pushing the price of all the sector’s main inputs through the roof?

Has Ireland’s construction sector built in enough resilience to be able to avoid the old boom-to-bust scenario of the past? The 130,000 workers who have brought it back from disaster anxiously await the answer to that question.

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