Irish construction firms are set to travel across the globe in search of skilled construction workers amid a severe shortage domestically.

A delegation from the South African government recently visited Dublin as part of a project aimed at attracting foreign workers to Ireland.

Next month up to 20 Irish companies are expected to make the 14,000km journey to attend a jobs fair organised in tandem with the South African government in Johannesburg.

There are in the region of 140,000 construction workers in Ireland but the State needs more than 50,000 more to meet housing and retrofitting 2030 targets according to a report by the Department of Further and Higher Education last year.

The report was tasked with quantifying the additional construction skills which will be required to deliver the Government’s targets in new housing and the retrofitting of 446,300 homes over the period 2023-2030.

It has previously been reported that the existing targets are an underestimation of what is needed as they are based on outdated population data and will likely be revised upwards in the coming months. This will mean the number of construction workers needed will be much higher.

Construction Industry Federation director general Tom Parlon said that there is a “very substantial number of foreign workers in the construction industry already” and while there are a lot of South Africans in the sector they all require work permits.

Work permits for 150 South African construction workers were issued last year, with an additional 52 issued already this year.

Mr Parlon explained that South Africa is a ripe recruiting ground due to a high youth unemployment rate, native English speakers and high skill rate.

He said: “A lot of our firms will be going out there. They’ll try and hire niche specialists.

“Our experience of South Africans has been very good – and the experience they’re having here is good; good conditions on site and good pay conditions so that’s filtering back.”

Mr Parlon said that if a company thinks they might only get a small amount of work permits, then they are likely to focus on recruiting niche specialists rather than general labourers. “If South Africans could come here, we’d take them all, I’d say. Work permits are difficult to come by, they’re scarce,” he said.

He added that several Irish engineering firms are already employing South African-based workers who are working remotely due to issues with obtaining work permits. Speaking on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show, Labour Senator Marie Sherlock said the initiative was “very much welcome” but said the Government needs to do more to cultivate the skills of local workers as well.

“Ireland has had two decades now of construction workers coming from abroad into Ireland and being a very necessary part of the construction workforce,” she said.

“My key point really is what are we doing here with regards to securing the sustained flow of skilled labour into construction in this country over this decade and beyond?

Construction firms

“I said at the start, the Department of Further and Higher Education last year forecast we need around 50,000 construction workers between now and 2030…. 82% of that is in the crafts – and yet when we look at the figures for last year in terms of craft apprenticeship registrations, they went down rather than up,” she said.

Figures provided by the Department of Further and Higher Education last night show that there are almost 26,000 active apprenticeships at the moment.

Further Education Minister Simon Harris said that while the numbers were positive further incentives to encourage people into apprenticeships in October’s Budget may be needed.

He said: “So any employer who takes on an apprentice now, for the first time in the history of the State every employer is getting some level of financial assistance from the State. Do we need to go further and do more?

“We may well, and what this report is indicating today is that government does need to look at how we can further incentivise or maybe stimulate demand in certain areas.

“So I will be looking at that in the run up to the budget,” the Minister said.

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