Belfast Telegraph

Construction continues to build on upturn despite a skills shortage

By Maureen Coleman

Northern Ireland's construction sector is continuing to recover but skills shortages are emerging, according to the latest Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) construction market survey.

The once-beleaguered industry has experienced its fourth successive quarter of expansion, with most sub-sectors reporting progress in the second quarter of the year.

But while the overall growth in workload is rising at its fastest pace since the end of 2004, a lack of quantity surveyors, other construction professionals and even blue-collar workers persisted, according to RICS.

Northern Ireland director Ben Collins said: "Northern Ireland chartered surveyors saw their workloads rise for the fourth quarter in a row, with evidence of growth broad-based in the sector and private commercial work in particular seeing strong rates of expansion.

"As the recovery continues, firms are reporting evidence of skills shortages emerging.

"We are also getting indications from local third-level education establishments that enrolment levels for construction-related courses are at low levels.

"With skills shortages emerging and the pipeline of professionals hampered by fewer students enrolling on construction-related courses, this gives us real cause for concern."

Mr Collins said the recent findings highlighted the need for the construction sector to "think seriously" about how to attract and retain more people, particularly women.

He said: "Figures suggest that women make up just 11% of the construction sector, with a mere 1.2% working in manual labour trades."

He added: "How can Northern Ireland expect to deliver some of the major projects required in the years ahead to upgrade our infrastructure, if we are not using the expertise of over half the population?

"Overall, while the latest survey gives real cause for optimism that the recovery is taking hold, it must be remembered that workloads are rising from historically low levels after a significant downturn."

The buoyant housing sector is contributing to the upturn.

Conor Mulligan, director of housebuilder Lagan Homes, said his company had sold almost three times as many houses so far this year, compared to the same stage last year.

But he said planning was a cause for concern.

"Our greatest concern is now the planning system and its ability to process the approvals as we need them," he said.

"A surge in demand for housing at the very time planning is moving to councils is not ideal, to say the least."

And a shortage of labour was also evident, he said.

"Many people not only left the industry but also the country and few new people were entering the industry. I have heard it said that there was no one under 40 on some of our sites."

Meanwhile, according to the Ulster Bank purchasing managers' index for June, Northern Ireland's economic recovery is being driven by the construction sector, but most of the work is coming from the Republic of Ireland and Britain.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular