Game changer for Munster but skills gap looms

170,000 workers left construction from 2007-2013

By Conor O’Connell

The National Planning Framework (NPF) could represent a game-changer for the southern region and for the wider Irish economy. If the plan is successful, cities like Cork, Limerick, and Waterford and regional towns will develop into a dynamic regional economy that can counter-balance the Irish economy’s overdependence on the greater Dublin area.

The plan will mean that the southern region will see a significant upturn in construction activity over the coming years.

The sheer number of major infrastructural projects outlined in the National Development Plan (NDP) underpins the commitment in the NPF to grow the three cities in the region.

For example, the Dunkettle Interchange and the N28 will also facilitate sustainable residential development as they will enable the relocation of the Port of Cork from the city centre to Ringaskiddy.

For the NPF to persist past the next electoral cycle, the Government will seek to establish a regulatory planning authority requiring approval by the Dáil.

The oft-forgotten regional authorities will be tasked with ensuring the principles of the NPF are adopted by local authorities in their development plans. This level of ambition and consideration for practical implementation is to be lauded.

What’s been lost in the debate is that the NPF’s success will be determined largely by the capacity of the construction industry to deliver the housing, infrastructure, and specialist buildings the economy and society requires.

However, there are several challenges that must be addressed. The quantum of investment in the NDP will see significant increases in demand for activity across all the Construction Industry Federation’s (CIF) sectors including civil engineering, main contracting, and housebuilding, particularly in the southern region.

In an already tight market, there will be a dramatic increase in demand for skilled onsite and offsite labour. It’s worth noting that more than 170,000 workers left Irish construction between 2007 and 2013. The CIF estimates there were 65,000 on the Live Register in 2013. Since then, construction companies have hired an additional 1,000 workers a month.

For the first time in many years, young people and their parents can view construction as a career destination as there is a clear pipeline of work. Salaries are increasing and the jobs involve high-level skills.

An even more stark challenge to the industry is the public-sector procurement system. The lowest price approach often leads to project delays, overruns, and adversarial unproductive relationships between players in the supply chain and the public sector.

Without addressing this system and ensuring the public sector has sufficient expertise, too much of the €116 billion investment in the NDP will leak away in delays and disputes.

The CIF has long-sought the establishment of robust cost-benefit analysis on the hundreds of overlapping proposals by Government departments. It’s understood an inter-departmental taskforce will oversee infrastructure delivery to monitor the projects that are shelved, stalled or over-budget to raise red flags.

The CIF believes a central database of all capital projects by the exchequer and by semi-state bodies is essential.

Another positive step is the establishment of the construction sector group. This group will help address the challenges to the delivery of the ambitious vision behind the framework while also modernising the industry.

Conor O’Connell is Construction Industry Federation director of the Southern Region

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