Builders ‘missing’ despite recovery

The building industry will have to recruit from abroad or lure back Irish emigrants if is to have enough workers for the anticipated construction boom.

While the sector was hit harder than any other during the recession, there is no pool of unemployed building workers here ready to take up work.

A study by Central Bank staff says: “A large proportion of construction workers who lost their jobs during the crash are likely to have emigrated.

“This has implications for the recovery in the construction sector, with inward migration likely to play an important role in meeting the demand for labour in the sector, as housing output picks up.”

The make-up of the industry’s surviving workforce has also changed. Those who kept their jobs are more likely to be older, better-educated, and Irish.

The numbers working in construction dropped by 65%, from 236,800 in 2007 to 83,400 in 2012, and recovery in the sector has lagged far behind other areas of the economy. By the middle of 2017, employment in all sectors, except for construction, was greater than during the peak in 2007.

By contrast, construction employment was 46% lower than in 2007, meaning it has made up less than a third of its losses.

The expectation that the shortfall can be made up from among the ranks of the unemployed is unfounded. Labour force data, including the last sector where individuals were employed, finds this is not the case.

The study looks at a sample in which 3,000 fewer people were employed in construction in 2017 than ten years earlier and finds about 1,500 of them employed in other sectors.

Of the other 1,500, only a few hundred were categorised as unemployed construction workers, unemployed from other sectors — meaning they had been employed elsewhere since leaving construction — or ‘inactive’, meaning they were no longer seeking work. That leaves more than 1,000 missing, presumed to have emigrated.

The disappearance of younger workers is particularly high. The recession saw a 90% decline in the 15-25 age group and a 63% decline in the 26-40 age group.

By contrast, in 2017 the number of workers aged 51 and over was the same as in 2007, pushing the average age of a construction worker up from 35.6, in 2007, to 42.3, in 2017.

Lesser-qualified workers also disappeared at a greater rate, so that in the same period, the proportion of the workforce with third-level qualifications grew from 28%, in 2007, to 47%, in 2017.


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