A shortage of tradespeople is hampering both the construction industry and the DIY retail sector, said the head of one of the country's largest DIY and builder provider chains.
Paul Candon, CEO of United Hardware Limited, which operates the Homevalue retail chain, said that Covid-19 lockdowns have had a big positive impact on the home improvement and DIY sector, with record sales of paint, home and garden furnishings and a big bounce in DIY products.
"But the downside of this pent-up demand and the new house and garden proud trend is significant feedback that it is getting harder and harder to hire tradespeople," he told the Sunday Independent. "Coupled with increased demand, a skills shortage of tradespeople has the potential to significantly impact construction activity."
Candon called on the Government to urgently incentivise those outside the workforce to re-enter or upskill and for it to review Ireland's current immigration policies. He said the Government needed to deliver an international recruitment drive to target the Irish diaspora, to attract skilled construction personnel back to Ireland.
"The sector needs to work with Government to find ways to attract young people - men and women - into the sector. School leavers need to better understand the benefits of pursuing a career in the construction trade," he added.
The construction workforce contracted significantly following the 2008 recession and numbers never returned to the highs of the mid-2000s, despite current demand for home improvement being close to an all-time high, said Candon. Over 200,000 people were employed in the sector in the mid-2000s, whereas there are currently approximately 160,000 people employed.
"This surge in activity has exposed the limitations of the construction workforce, which is currently operating at maximum capacity but is struggling to keep up with demand," Candon said. "Tradespeople and construction firms are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and householders are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain the services of tradespeople."
He added he feared that this would mean that the construction industry would not be in a position to achieve full output which would, if realised, have the potential to contribute significantly to the economy.
"The re-establishment of a strong skills base, across the range of occupational groups, is of paramount importance for the construction industry. In addition, as the overall construction workforce ages, there will be a greater need for new entrants who will need time to acquire the required skills and experience. There is a particularly pressing issue with specialised tradespersons and the availability of apprenticeships."
The issue is evidenced by the low number of apprentices across all trades, he said. There were some 4,400 apprentices across all trades in construction in 2015, compared with 23,700 apprentices in Q4 2007. That number is increasing year-on-year but it is still nowhere near 2007 levels.
"Tradespeople are doing an absolutely brilliant job out there at the moment while trying to keep up with demand," said Candon. "Combined with the pent-up demand that is there currently, and the huge increase in construction activity that will be needed to meet housing targets, for example, this is something that really needs to be watched.
"The Irish construction sector is going to have a big challenge with that. In Ireland we have been very strong around incentivising third-level education, but are we managing apprenticeships with the same success? Is that feeding what is a really important part of our economy, or is it just being forgotten?
"The high-end tech jobs are great and we provide college education to be able to fill Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, and these are great companies with loads of brilliant graduates coming out of college into them. But what about the carpenter and the electrician, where are they coming from?" he added.