McAlpine's Fusiliers march back to Dublin as a building boom sends wages soaring

British construction firms face shortage of skilled workers
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The Independent Online
Building sites in Britain face an acute shortage of skilled labour as the Irish army of "McAlpine's Fusiliers" is lured home by higher wages in Ireland's booming construction sector.

The reverse migration, of Irish building workers who would traditionally have looked to this side of the Irish Sea for work, is now set to accelerate.

Official figures published yesterday indicate that the Irish construction boom will run until at least 2003 following a 50 per cent surge in output between 1994 and 1996. Not for nothing is Dublin known as "Crane City".

The move back across the Irish Sea has been encouraged by Dublin-based firms in recent months through an advertising campaign funded by their employers' association in Britain's Irish publications. The move drew 3,000 responses.

The Irish Republic's environment minister, Noel Dempsey, said on-site employment in Ireland jumped dramatically from 71,000 two years ago to about 93,000 in April this year. He said "output growth was unprecedented in the history of the state, and unmatched in any other EU member". He envisages that the on-site jobs total would pass 100,000 in 2000.

Construction sources said the projections were, if anything, too cautious, putting this year's output rise at 8 per cent when the real figure may come closer to 10 per cent.

The boom is across a range of areas, from major office projects, new hotels, increased council house building, and a surge in new private housing prompted by the Republic's sustained period of low interest rates (underpinned by nine years of wage accords with unions) and rising employment. More than pounds 500m has been invested in new city-centre apartment blocks since the late 1980s. Road-building has had several years of European Union- assisted expansion.

The figures from the Irish Department of Environment also point to strong a construction performance in 1998 and 1999, though slightly below this year's exceptional growth.

Irish navvies have long been an institution on building sites in the South of England, with family networks helping find work for the steady flow of migrants over the decades.

London's Irish builders entered the national culture with songs in their honour, notably the rousing "McAlpine's Fusiliers," sung by Ronnie Drew and The Dubliners.

However, the flow of Irish labour out of Britain, including skilled bricklayers, plasterers and load movers, has accounted for about 2,000 of the extra 8,000 employed in building in Ireland this year compared with 1996, according to Liam Kelleher, director-general of Ireland's Construction Industry Federation. "That's just the contracting [building] side, and doesn't include architects and engineers, surveyors, estimators, project planners and IT staff, for whom employment has increased also," Mr Kelleher said. They are also being targeted in Britain by Irish firms.

"The outlook is good. People who emigrated in during the boom years in the UK in the late Eighties, are now contemplating returning when they're getting married and having kids."

That past trend means the typical Irish worker in Britain is likely to be slightly older than those who took site work during the German boom, after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

An estimated 500,000 workers left the British construction sector following the end of the Eighties boom. The precise numbers of returned Irish emigrants among that total is hard to determine. Many projects are short-term and may not involve permanent moves back.

Neglect of training in Ireland during the past 10 to 15 years has left many unemployed within Ireland unqualified to take up current vacancies, according to Paddy O'Shaughnessy of the Dublin-based Building and Allied Trades Union.

He claimed that Irish builders advertising in Britain "was a bit of a gimmick, as we found that, while the industry was in a good state, much against the perception of an acute skills shortage there was actually a surplus of bricklayers in the Dublin area early this year."

Mr O'Shaughnessy said the appearance of English-based workers in Dublin, some with only slight family connections, had occurred only once before during the Irish boom in the late Seventies. "Sisks, one of the biggest contractors here, recruited a lot of bricklayers in the North-west of England. The [Irish] employers simply haven't been recruiting enough young people to the trades of bricklaying and plastering."

In Dublin, under productivity-related terms, those trades can now earn rates of pounds 500 a week, slightly ahead of British levels - pounds 11 an hour for bricklayers against pounds 9.50 an hour in Britain.

John Ring, business manager of Luton-based sub-contractors Murtagh, said: "People from all over the UK are going over to Ireland: for the money and quality of life. There is a phenomenal amount of building work going on at the moment, partly funded by the EU, particularly roads.

"From 1996 we noticed ads in Construction News and the [London] Evening Standard asking people to return to Ireland. It has caused a problem here without a doubt. The construction industry is out of the recession and apprenticeships were cut during the recession, therefore we don't have the new workers coming through, but now we don't have labour to accommodate this. Plus, workers are heading to Germany."

Keith Banbury, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Building, said the boom economy in Dublin has meant that "the construction skill trades are getting better than average money in Dublin at the moment. That is having a knock-on effect in terms of skill shortages in the UK mainland. People will go where the money is."