Addressing the skills gap when faced with a talent puddle

by | Oct 25, 2021

What in previous years has been a large talent pool of skilled construction labour, this year has turned into a ‘talent puddle’, says Ferdia White, business director of Dublin-based Hays recruiting agency. Moreover, the skills gap in Ireland’s construction gap is widening at the minute, he says.

“Having recruited in the construction sector for almost 10 years now, I have never seen the demand for staff as high as it is now,” he adds. Some Irish construction professionals have gone to the UK, where they are in even greater demand as Brexit has led many
European workers to go home.

In March, at least six UK firms were actively seeking to convince construction professionals inIreland to come to the UK to work. The number of skilled professionals who had gone to the UK ran into the thousands, said Brian Coogan, chief executive of the Irish Plant Contractors Association earlier this year.

How many bricklayers?

There are also shortages in the number of people in apprenticeship pathways leading to skilled construction labour in different fields. In 2005, almost 600 people took up apprenticeships to become trained bricklayers. In 2021, the number was just 63. A 2020 Expert Group on Future Skills Needs found Ireland needs at least 115 new entrant plasterers each year.

But through August, only 15 people registered in 2021 for a plasterer apprenticeship. Against such a shortage, larger contractors who can offer staff much higher salaries for building the very biggest projects like data centres and semiconductor facilities are hoovering up professionals. And this is “certainly affecting the ability of mid-tier contractors working in the commercial and residential space to hire
these types of candidates”, says White.

Got you in my sites

So where is all this skilled staff shortage most keenly felt right now? Site managers with both commercial and residential experience are roles for which White has seen an increased demand. And the main roles sought are “still quantity surveyors, site engineers and building services engineers which has been the case for the past number of years,” he adds. Firms spent the majority of Covid looking for experienced candidates, since training up junior members of staff was more difficult during remote working.

This “has probably delayed the development of junior staff that have essentially missed out on vital training that they would have received on the job otherwise,” White observes. Meanwhile his doors are darkened more by employers seeking out candidates, as opposed to candidates going to companies or recruiters.

In an employees’ market, the key motivators for when they do decide to move are salary increases and more flexible working schedules.

Tickets for Dublin

To meet Ireland’s housing targets, the construction sector will need another 27,000 workers, says the Government.
“We must speed up the work permit process,” argues White. And with the critical skills visa offered to many professions in the construction sector, “it’s imperative that all companies sign up as a trusted partner to ensure they are top of the queue for getting permits
processed,” he says.

Will work for long-term career pathways

So in a candidates’ market, what can contractors do to lure highly sought-after skilled talent? There are three simple steps that could make a big difference, says White. One is to benchmark salaries, to make sure your salaries are competitive and that you can demonstrate this according to benchmarks. Otherwise candidates and existing employees will know they can find the pay they’re looking for elsewhere.

A second is to consider the benefits you are offering. Organisations are becoming more creative with the benefits offered to staff to stop them moving elsewhere, he says. “Whether it’s hybrid working, health insurance, pensions or an increase in annual leave, professionals are being offered more and will expect more from their employers,” he says.

And finally, flexibility is becoming a key motivator for employees, with the pandemic showing a number of roles in the industry can be performed remotely.

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