Needs must’ says architect who emigrated to Saudi

Married father of quads and chartered architect Tom Byrne is not where he wants to be, but admits “needs must”.

Earlier this year, the 55-year-old Co Clare man emigrated to Saudi Arabia after securing a two-year contract on a $50m industrial development where he works as project director.

Mr Byrne has beaten the same path as thousands of other architects and engineers who have moved to the Middle East and elsewhere after the collapse of our construction industry.

Managing director of Cork-based consulting engineering firm, Fehily Timoney, Eamon Timoney moved to the Middle East two years ago as part of a wider survival strategy for the firm.

During the construction boom, the company benefited from the state’s capital programme and was involved in a number of public roads, including the Fermoy and Cashel by-pass schemes and infrastructure projects. However, pre-tax losses totalling over €830,000 in 2009 prompted an overhaul of the firm.

Based in the east Saudi Arabian city of Khobar today, Mr Timoney warns: “It is very sad, but people don’t realise that with the numbers of engineers that have left Ireland over the past number of years, we have lost a huge amount of engineering capacity and that knowledge base has been lost to Ireland. I fear that the country will pay the price for this in the future.”

Back in 2008, Tom Byrne operated an architectural firm in Ennis that at the height of the boom employed eight.

He recalls: “The construction industry collapsed almost overnight in late 2008. I closed the practice in Spring 2009 and let the staff go with a huge sense of guilt and sadness as they had been the backbone of the business.”

The Kilkee man heard of the Saudi opportunity during a pub conversation and the financial security provided by the contract was obvious to a man seeking to finance his quads (now aged 21) through university.

He says: “The work is a huge challenge and I am learning things as a project director that I never thought I would have the opportunity to do.

“Having been self-employed for 29 years, it was difficult to start afresh within a huge organisation employing 120,000, with all the bureaucracy and machinations involved.

Living a tax-free life where petrol is 9 cent a litre has its advantages. However, Mr Byrne says: “I am very far from home… I miss my family terribly and so am delighted to be home for Christmas.”

President of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI), Michelle Fagan said the recession had hit older architects harder than it had affected younger members of the profession.

She said: “Working abroad is a great opportunity for an architect, but if you have family, it is difficult.”

Ms Fagan said the unemployment rates among architects in Ireland is 15% with a large number under-employed.

Mr Byrne says: “I would absolutely love to say that I will be returning to Ireland after this stint abroad, but unfortunately I don’t see recovery starting soon enough. I have added skills to those already gained over many years and hopefully other doors will open for me either within this company or elsewhere.”

At its peak, the construction sector was twice the size it should have been, employing directly or indirectly 377,000 people. Now the sector employs 138,000.

The new Construction Industry Council states that 70,000 new jobs could be created if the Government delivered on its projected spend on the Public Capital Programme that facilitates the funding of major projects from alternative sources.

However, the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) has described the 2013 budget as “a lost opportunity”, stating that it failed on a number of fronts: a lack of stimulus measures for the sector; failure to address black economy issues in the industry; no reduction in construction VAT and no extension of mortgage interest relief.

As a result of the continuing flat-lining in the industry, Mr Timoney says: “Sadly, I can’t see any indication of an uplift in general consultancy and the Government’s capital spend is not enough to sustain the industry. I don’t see any general uplift for four to five years.”

Mr Timoney said the company wouldn’t have survived without the input from staff.

The Muslim call to prayer can be heard in the background and Mr Timoney says that overseas revenues for this year at the firm will account for 30% of revenues, compared to zero in 2007 and 2008.

The move to the Middle East is starting to pay off and Mr Timoney says that this is the first year since 2008 that the company has taken on graduates, adding that he believes the company has turned the corner and will record a profit in 2012.

Recent accounts file by Fehily Timoney Ltd show that the firm returned to profit last year to record a pre-tax profit of €38,426 following a pre-tax loss of €190,650 in 2010.

This came in spite of the firm’s gross profit dropping by 18% from €5.7m to €4.7m.

Ms Fagan says there are tentative signs for an increase in her members’ businesses for 2013 with the number of inquiries concerning work up in recent months.

However, Mr Byrne has a more downbeat assessment. He says: “It saddens me to think that there doesn’t seem to be a secure future for those in the architectural profession in Ireland. I try not to see too much news from Ireland online as it doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of optimism as far as the construction industry goes.

“The construction industry seems to be an acronym for all the ills in Ireland. We have to get away from this perception, as having lived in the Middle East, we are extremely isolated and depopulated here in Ireland.”

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