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Huge ‘black hole’ in workforce as 50,000 building workers are needed to tackle housing


Higher Education Minister Simon Harris

Higher Education Minister Simon Harris

Higher Education Minister Simon Harris

More than 50,000 construction workers are urgently needed to fill a ‘black hole’ in the workforce if the Government is to meet targets aimed at tackling the housing crisis.

An unpublished report has identified a significant lack of electricians, plumbers, painters and bricklayers.

These workers will be required to construct a promised 33,000 homes a year by 2030 while also meeting the Government’s retrofitting targets.

The report, by training agency Solas, highlights major gaps throughout the apprenticeship system that will need to be filled over the next eight years.

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These includes a demand for 7,038 electricians, 7,352 carpenters, 7,035 plumbers, 3,515 plasters, 4,530 painters/decorators and 1,807 bricklayers by 2030.

The new figures also show the need for 1,587 roofers and tilers, while 4,555 insulation installers and 1,817 glazers, window fabricators and fitters are required.

In total, the report said 51,697 construction workers and tradespeople of all descriptions would be required before the end of the decade if housing targets were to be met.

The figures include a small number of people who have already signed up to apprenticeships and are still in training.

The report comes as Higher Education Minister Simon Harris said a “very narrow and sometimes elitist view” of third-level education had deterred school-leavers from taking up apprenticeships.

“That has caused significant challenges – not least of all the mental health pressures and stress on young people – but it has also caused skill shortages in our country,” the minister told the Irish Independent.

The Solas report recommends making apprenticeship programmes for certain trades shorter and more flexible to fast-track the number of people who can take up positions.

It identified a specific need for more plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters and suggested examining whether financial incentives could attract people to these trades. This could be done by way of bursaries or grants.

However, a decision has not been taken by the Government on how the recommendation could best be achieved.

Employers are already incentivised to take on apprentices and policies focused on employees are expected to be considered.

Meanwhile, a national centre for training and assessing construction skills is to be opened. It will be modelled on a similar institution in the UK.

There are also plans in place to open six retrofitting centres linked to Education Training Boards across the country.

The centres will be used to upskill thousands of workers who will help the Government achieve their aim of retrofitting 500,000 homes by 2030.

As of last April 19, there were 1,810 people registered for apprenticeships, of whom 1,597 were for crafts such as electricians, plumbers and carpenters

Apprentice registrations have increased significantly over the past four years, largely due to the resurgence of the construction sector since the financial crash and the Government’s push to encourage more people to take up trades.

In 2021 alone, a record 8,607 new apprentices were registered. This was an increase of nearly 40pc on the numbers for 2019.

An additional €17m was earmarked in the Budget to fund Solas and the Health and Education Authority’s response to the backlogs in the apprenticeship system.

In addition, a number of agreed measures are being implemented to help clear the lists.

These include changing delivery structures for off-the-job training and an opt-in rapid employer assessment, which is now being piloted.

Mr Harris said he would be “ramping up” the introduction of courses to train plumbers, electricians, plasterers and painters.

“Last year, for example, we had about 6,000 people doing construction apprenticeships, and it will be 9,000 this year – so every year we’re increasing numbers,” Mr Harris said.

“My message to people is we’re going to be able to meet the supply in terms of places. We’ll be able to provide places for further education and training through apprenticeships.

“We need to now create the demand. We need enough people to know about this, to put their hand up and say, ‘I want to help us build the future, to help build the homes we need’.”

Mr Harris urged young people to consider apprenticeships when filling out their CAO forms as they approach their Leaving Certs.

“We need to try to match people on the live register, who might have an interest or a have a background in this. We need to provide them with a piece of upskilling and reskilling that might only be weeks long,” he said.

“In certain cases, much of the retrofit training can be done in three days if you
have a background in construction – but it is a massive challenge.”

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