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Friday 22 February 2019

Not enough brickies to build our new houses

Four-year courses for basic trades sparks construction crisis

Michael Fitzmaurice
Michael Fitzmaurice

Claire McCormack

JUST seven plasterers, eight painter decorators and less than 30 new "brickies" will enter the jobs market as newly qualified professionals in 2018, sparking fears of a crisis in the construction trade.

Even if the construction sector takes off as expected in the next 18 months, there will simply not be enough young Irish tradesmen and women who can plaster walls, lay blocks or paint a house to take on new jobs, according to Tom Parlon of the Construction Industry Federation (CIF).

Worrying new figures show just 1,853 people registered for apprenticeships in 27 trades across five industrial sectors - construction, electrical, motor, engineering and printing last year (2014).

These include 670 trainee electricians, 259 plumbing apprentices and just over 130 carpentry and joinery trainees.

But, with current apprenticeships generally lasting four years, it will be 2018 before the trainees can work as fully trained professionals.

Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice will present Government with a strategy document in February to tackle the trades crisis.

"We've lost a whole range of different skills, trades and crafts in recent years," said the Roscommon-South Leitrim TD.

"I'm trying to coordinate different sides that will detail where the shortages are - especially in construction. The country is crying out for houses but a lot of our skill base is gone."

Despite the increased demand for Irish bricklayers and tilers in Australia and Canada, emigration is "only part of the problem", he claims

He believes the Government needs to promote more non-academic education, expand the range of apprenticeships, learn from European models and look back to older Irish training and employment schemes from the 1970s and 80s.

"Since the Celtic Tiger we have decided that everyone should go to college, so from around 2005 everyone spent three or four years in college and then emigrated and we thought we'd never need a person to use a grader in road construction or drive a crane, or lay a pipe, or a plasterer or a bricklayer or a roofer ever again," he said.

"We can't have everyone becoming nurses, doctors and lawyers. We need other skills and there may be people gifted with their hands and we need to encourage that and give them facilities in different parts of the country," he said.

He added that Germany has learned this lesson, offering more than 300 recognised trades where staff start as apprentices. Ireland's education and training authority has been rebranded over the years - from AnCO to FAS to SOLAS over four decades.

"The old system of AnCO that was in Ireland years ago trained great tradesman and we've gone away from that altogether, we've gone down a statistical road that if you're unemployed you go and do a computer course, tick the box and it's a great headline, but the reality is, two months later, when that course is finished, you don't have a job," he said.

"We are losing basic skills by the day because of retirement and lack of interest from younger generations."

The current apprenticeship programme normally consists of seven phases split between off-the-job training provided by the recently formed Education and Training Boards and the Institutes of Technology, while the on-the-job training is provided by employers.

Only applicants who have secured work with a company which has agreed to sponsor the entirety of the apprenticeship can take up a position.

Mr Fitzmaurice, a turf cutter and agricultural contractor who has been fixing machinery for more than 25 years, has struggled to find a mechanic because he doesn't have the necessary documentation.

"I can't take on, or sponsor a young mechanic, because I've no paperwork in my hand, and when I haven't got those documents, I cannot sign off on a young mechanic."

The newly elected Apprenticeship Council, which met for the first time in November, is now "calling for proposals from industry for new apprenticeships".

But for Mr Fitzmaurice, who has championed rural issues since his by-election victory in October, reviving interest in Irish trades is his "main focus at the moment" and he is confident that Minister English will consider his proposal in February.

Looking ahead, Tom Parlon, director general of the Construction Industry Federation, said:"There would be a skills shortage very quickly, even at the moment a lot of the plastering being done is being done by Eastern European gangs that specialise in it, so plastering as an Irish skill is dying out because young people are not taking it up."

Sunday Independent

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