'Irish used to be best in the world, but not anymore' say Comer brothers
THEY began as hungry, ambitious plasterers as teenagers and went on to cement their futures as the most successful developers in the country, but today Ireland "is the last place" the multi-millionaire Comer brothers would look to hire tradesmen.
In 1971, Luke Comer went straight into AnCO in Galway City to start an apprenticeship as a plasterer. He was just 13 years old. Nine months later, he and 23 other aspiring young tradesmen completed their training and got jobs.
"I never even bothered to pick up my papers, I just qualified and I was able to prove within 10 minutes on a building site that I was able to do it," said Mr Comer whose assets are worth an estimated €2 billion.
"The Irish used to be the best tradesmen in the world but they're not anymore," he said, adding that taking four years to complete an apprenticeship scheme today is a "waste of time".
"If you can't learn it in six months, there's a problem," said the 57-year-old who went straight onto the building sites and priced work on some of the biggest jobs in the country before his 14th birthday.
By the time he turned 20, Luke, along with his brothers Brian and Tom, could plaster 14 two-bedroom flats a week making £1,000 per flat. Today, it would cost €5,000 to plaster the same area.
And now, as one of the very first developers to start building again in post-recession Ireland, the Comer brothers are extremely concerned about the worrying state of construction trades.
"It's a very serious problem and it's right across the board, plasterers, plumbers, in every single trade there is a shortage... what's the point in having loads and loads of engineers and no people to do the work?"
Last year, the brothers from Glenamaddy, Co Galway, announced plans to spend €1.5bn developing 3,000 homes, manufacturing space and a science park on a 210-acre site between Dublin Airport and the M50 motorway. But with just seven newly-qualified plasterers, eight painter decorators and 27 new brick layers to enter the jobs market by 2018, they don't expect to see many Irish workers on their site.
"I'd go wherever you can get them, it doesn't matter what race or creed they are as long as they can do the work. They have to be good enough for our standards," he said.
"I can't understand how we had something back in 1970 that worked better than the system today. All we're doing is spending money and creating more and more problems and we're not solving them at all."
And according to Mr Comer, social welfare "is the biggest culprit".
"Encouraging people and training them to become tradesmen is a far better option than going on the dole," said Mr Comer who got paid £6 a week during his AnCO apprenticeship.
"It's not going to happen overnight but we need to go back and copy the old AnCO model and we could once again become the envy of the world with a cross section of everything - engineers, quantity surveyors and tradesmen."
Meanwhile, Tom Parlon, director general of the Construction Industry Federation, hopes the Government will announce "some modification of the old scheme" in the New Year.
"The recovery in construction is pretty brittle and people are a bit slow to take on an apprentice for four years, so we're hoping a new pilot scheme is going to be introduced fairly quickly."