Cautious optimism that industry will benefit from reopening of the economy
A lot has been written about how the construction industry has fared over the past year but as we edge ever closer to an easing of lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland, the focus now is on what the future holds.
While the wider economy has undoubtedly taken a hit from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and some sectors may have a long road back to recovery, construction activity has remained relatively resilient.
This has been helped by the fact that after the initial lockdown, employers were able to make adjustments for social distancing and safety that enabled sites to stay open and projects to progress.
Hay’s Annual Salary & Recruiting Trends Survey found that most employers in the construction sector are optimistic about the year ahead, with 89% expecting their organisation’s activity levels to increase or stay the same over the next 12 months and 70% intending to hire new staff – although 55% said they expect some difficulties recruiting people with the right skills.
Gavin McGuire, Northern Ireland Director of the Federation of Master Builders says things have generally been quite positive for FMB members and is cautiously optimistic this will continue through 2021.
“Nothing’s quite normal but our members have reported that it’s been quite busy for small commercial and domestic work. Some of that is Covid related. After the first lockdown people weren’t going on holiday or buying a new car, so they put their money into their houses, into renovations,” says Gavin.
“But while construction might have held up well when compared with sectors like retail and hospitality, we don’t operate in a bubble. We need the wider economy to be doing well and for people to be confident to spend money. Right now, none of us know what economy will look like in 12 months.”
One challenge that is starting to come through is the impact of Brexit on the cost of supplies and materials, with concerns among members over the cost of steel and talk of possible timber shortages, says Gavin.
“The worry is that the full impacts haven’t come through yet or may not be fully factored in to jobs already underway,” he says. “As builders merchants pass on costs this could create difficulties. Small market clients might not always be as understanding if budgets change a lot because of material costs going between a quote and doing the job, which can be six months or more.”
Ciarán Fox, Director of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects says that while many of its members had to navigate the upheaval of working from home, work has continued to tick over.
“Generally, things have been quite good because there has been a combination of projects coming through. Jobs are still going up on our website, which is a good sign,” says Ciaran.
“On the domestic side, people are thinking of moving, extending, building. In the public sector new projects have released for bidding. There have been some question marks over office developments, but even then, architects have been helping clients reconfigure layouts and explore future space needs.”
While Ciarán notes the freeze in hospitality and retail work, he thinks there will be opportunities for architects in the ongoing conversation around how we use town and city centres post-pandemic.
“We expect a period of substantial change in NI’s built environment in the next 5-10 years. It has been acknowledged that we need a major retrofit programme across all buildings, which the public sector should lead. To achieve plans for net zero carbon the public sector estate – social housing, schools, offices, hospitals – needs to perform better,” he says.
“The redevelopment and reconfiguring of city and town centres is happening now. Retail was already in a state of change and Covid measures have accelerated that. In the next few years we need to consider how they those spaces are repurposed. As attention turns to how to attract people to live and spend time in town and city centres, architects’ skills will have a big role to play.”
Roger Gillespie, Chair of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) in NI, also thinks the industry has been resilient, but notes that companies have faced challenges from the different rules in play across NI, the Republic of Ireland and different parts of the UK.
“My own customers have been busy in the past 12 months but there are definitely questions about what happens now, particularly around budgets and spending on new projects. There’s also a question around whether ways of working will change for some parts of the industry. People adjusted when travel to GB became more difficult and have got used to being home more,” he says.
While Roger has no doubts about the resilience of the industry, he says has Covid served to highlight some bigger issues around skills.
“We know that skills shortages are already impacting on productivity and the concern for CIOB is still around where the construction managers of the future will come from. Pay is already good so we are looking at what will attract people into the industry. We are also working with the industry, colleges and universities on linking apprenticeships more closely to future demand,” he says.
“A shortage of good people drives salaries up, but the bigger issue is that when preparing people for the future we need make sure their qualifications are fit for purpose. We need to ensure training focuses on digital skills and logistics, basic traditional skills are no longer enough.”
It’s clear from talking to these industry leaders there is confidence for the future, but still many questions to answer.