'We dropped the ball' says engineer as he warns of impact of apprentices shortage

A claim that Ireland “dropped the ball” in terms of keeping an up and coming supply of qualified tradespeople coming through apprenticeship schemes has been made by the boss of a leading Mullingar engineering firm.

“We work on maybe 180 extensions a year, and three or four new-build houses – and in the last five years I have only come across one apprentice on site,” says John Madden of John Madden and Associates in Blackhall in Mullingar.

Carpenters, electricians, blocklayers, plumbers are among the trades that will be critical as the drive to retrofit 500,000 homes to a Building Energy Rating of B2 gets under way – but Mr Madden believes there are a range of measures required to address the skills shortage.

“One thing is the pay is low for apprentices coming in,” he says, pointing out that for first year apprentices €250-260 is typical.

Competing against that is the attraction of work in Australia, where a young person might finish their week with a better wage packet, and the opportunity to enjoy the sort of opportunities for socialising for which Australia is famed.

Along with that, a culture has evolved of encouraging young people to go to college instead of into an apprenticeship.

Meanwhile, as part of the ongoing shift towards improving energy efficiency in both new-build property and in older housing stock, regulations are revised, new methods are evolving and new materials are being introduced – but without specialist training these are often being incorrectly applied.

“We are required to do 39 hours of CPD (continuous professional development a year) but the problem is we see very few young people doing these courses and very few builders,” says John.

He believes that in light of the constant evolution, government should consider a requirement that all those in construction engage in CPD.

Without it, engineers and architects inspecting work done are going to continue finding errors such as the use of inappropriate materials or the inappropriate technique used especially with the increasing use of technologies such as photovoltaic panels and air-to-water heating systems.

These aren’t insignificant considerations when one considers the sums involved: “You would be talking €70,000-€80,000 to retrofit a house to get it to B3 standard,” he says.

“What is needed is to have a massive recruitment drive for apprentices with some kind of incentive for people to take on trainees and pay them properly and to make sure they get the proper certification.

“Skills required have changed: the work has got more technical and there are new materials and things like breathable membranes.

“These technologies we are now using are well known in other countries like Germany or Switzerland but they are new to us.

“Also the regulations have changed because of things like pyrite and Priory Hall, and it’s great bringing in new regulations, but you need CPD for the trades as well as for the professionals because there is a massive gap between what was required of the trades and what is required now.”