One of the major challenges facing the construction industry over the next three years is the lack of skilled personnel available to complete the regeneration of Ireland’s built landscape.
There is an estimated shortage of 112,000 people in the industry, with a shortage of experienced architects and engineers at all levels.
As well as engineers and architects, skilled craftspeople are desperately needed – the number of skilled craftspeople working in Ireland in 2015 was 48,900, but an additional 36,000 skilled craftspeople (including apprentices) will be needed by 2020. See DKM report.
For February and March, CIF will be running a series of interviews with returned emigrants who have come home to work in the industry in Ireland – why they left, why they came home and their hopes and fears for the future. Through this we hope to give insight into the expectations they have about working in Ireland, what motivated them to return home, and discover what Ireland and the construction industry can do to attract valuable personnel back to Ireland.
Eoin Darby is the owner of Darby & Associates Chartered Quantity Surveyors based in Dublin. The company provides expert freelance Quantity Surveying on everything from extensions, to refurbishments, new builds and commercial fit-outs.
When the crash happened, Eoin was a recent graduate and suffered from the “last in-first out” principle – instead of languishing at home he moved to New Zealand and got a wealth of experience working on some major projects before a girl from Portmarnock turned his head and brought him back to Ireland.
Construction Network Ireland sat down with Eoin to talk about his experience abroad, why the move home came at the right time for him and why Ireland is the land of opportunity for qualified QS professionals.
What area of the construction industry are you working in?
I'm a self-employed Chartered Quantity Surveyor since I moved home three years ago. About 80% of my work is in the residential sector around Dublin and the majority of that work is for building contractors, but I am also getting work from private clients who are either building themselves, or looking to extend/refurbish their homes. I have won over €25m worth of work on behalf of building contractors in this time, and I’m currently managing client projects of approximately €2m.
How did you originally qualify as a QS?
I qualified in 2006 with a degree in Construction Technology and I was one of eleven in our class who went into the part-time QS degree in Bolton Street. While studying, I was working as a trainee QS with a company called Mulcahy McDonagh & Partners in Ballsbridge, D4.
It was just before the crash and I would have been part of a team working on some big projects; the Dundrum Shopping Centre, the ILAC Centre, large projects all around the country.
When things went wallop the second phase of the Dundrum shopping centre got shelved on a Monday, and by the Friday about twelve of us were let go – all the young lads got let go first.
It was the first of a lot of cuts but thankfully I was lucky enough to get work with a building contractor in Rathcoole – I got about seven months of work out of that pricing tenders and that sort of thing, but unfortunately that builder was having difficulty getting paid on some of the projects they were working on and it got to a point where he couldn't even afford to keep me on on a week-to-week basis.
At that stage I thought to myself, “I really have to start looking abroad for work, because there is just nothing for me here”.
How did you choose your eventual destination?
I looked at Australia and I looked at Canada, and even though they were more known countries in a lot of ways, I found them rather daunting because of the sheer size of them.
I had a friend from New Zealand who had lived in Dublin and recently returned home. I rang him up out of the blue and said “what's the construction industry like in New Zealand?”
He told me that things were doing quite well there and that he didn't think I would have much trouble finding work, so after a bit of thought and research I decided that I would give it a go for six months – I thought the recession in Ireland would be over by then!
I flew out to Christchurch and did a bit of travelling around the South Island to see the country I would be living in for the next six months. I settled in Wellington where my friend was now living and was lucky enough to get a job in a Project Management Consultancy called Kensway Property Group.
What sort of work were you doing initially?
The company was primarily focused on the healthcare sector – hospitals, healthcare centres, residential facilities for those suffering from dementia, which is a really big industry in New Zealand as it is an aging population.
It was all new to me as I hadn't worked in that area before, and I spent two years working on some massive projects – one of the hospital extension projects was $8 million, another was $14 million. I had similar experience on large projects in Ireland, but at a very junior level; in this role I was the only QS in the company.
Within a couple of months I was responsible for about $30 million worth of projects and I was only 24 – it really was deep-end stuff!
Thankfully I managed to get through it all and because they were a project management consultancy and had a lot of experience in the area, even though I was the only QS in the company I did have backup from experienced colleagues, so that was a real positive.
What was your next move?
After about two years I was looking for a bit more variety in the work I did – even though the experience was amazing, the healthcare sector was very specific and I wanted to broaden my skill set and get back to the nitty-gritty of Quantity Surveying.
I got a role as Quantity Surveyor / Project Manager in Rawlinsons NZ, who are one of the largest QS companies in New Zealand and would also have a presence in Australia. At that point my career really took a step up – because of the experience I had in managing large projects in the healthcare sector they immediately put me on some really large commercial projects primarily in Wellington’s Central Business District.
That was around the time of the earthquakes in New Zealand, wasn't it?
Exactly - in February 2011 there was a major earthquake in Christchurch and as a result the New Zealand government took out a massive chunk of the superannuation fund, basically the national pension reserve fund, to re-build the city.
There were literally billions of dollars in projects being undertaken, not just in Christchurch but in Wellington as well, as this city was on a fault-line too and many of the property owners wanted to pre-empt any potential loss of life or damage to their buildings.
I ended up working on two major projects – the bigger of the two was Lambton House in the heart of Wellington’s CBD. It was a structural upgrade and fit-out for the HQ of Vodafone New Zealand, the building was owned by one of the largest landlords in the country.
The budget for the landlord works was about $5 million and when that came in on time and on budget, I remember thinking to myself, “you know that, I'm actually pretty good at this”. I think the experience on projects like that has really spurred me on, it gave me the confidence to explore my potential.
As well as the larger projects there were lots of other smaller projects that I worked on, and it was really hard to leave that job particularly as they were fantastic employers and there was an opportunity to buy into the shareholding of the company down the line.
Why did you decide to leave in the end?
While I was over in New Zealand, I met a girl from Portmarnock... Suzanne was on a one year visa and moved home when this visa had ran out. It got to the point where I had to ask myself, “am I going to stay here, or am I going to move home?”
I was at the point where I was ready to move home in a way, four years is a long time away from home, but that was the catalyst. I was still a young guy and I thought to myself “I've been here half my adult life” and that was a scary thought back then. I had residency status on my Visa so I knew the door wouldn’t close behind me when I left New Zealand.
I arrived back in Ireland in April 2013 having handed in my notice in March. Suzanne at the time was cabin crew with Ryanair and was based in Manchester, so I thought I would look for work over there. Pretty much every single recruiter I talked to looked at my experience and my CV and said to me. “why aren't you looking for a job in London?”
I wasn't coming all the way back to either not live in the same city as Suzanne and also move somewhere else that wasn't home, but after about 3 weeks of looking in Manchester I really began to question what I had done leaving an amazing job in New Zealand to end up jobless in Manchester!
So at that point you moved home?
I moved home in May 2013 and after a brief role with a civil engineering firm, the builder I had been working on just before I left asked me if I could price a few jobs for him. I started doing one tender a week and he won a few of them and I started thinking to myself, “if I get a bit more work here this could become a more stable thing”.
It just grew from there and within a few months I was getting jobs from other builders, my name was getting out there and before long I was working for myself full-time. I put a lot of time in to my website, social media and branding which has helped my name get out there.
All the builders who had been stung during the crash were looking at a lean cost base to get started again and they didn't want to have a QS employed directly – I charge a fee per tender and it seemed to work very well for them and for me.
Are you glad you moved back?
I am – I always said that I didn't want to regret moving home so I had to make the most of it, and that has turned out to be the case. There were a few weeks in Manchester when I probably felt a bit different to be fair!
I feel it was the right time to move home – I was ready to come home before I did to be honest, but I wanted to make sure the projects I was working on and the lease I had on my apartment in New Zealand was all finished up the right way.
When I moved abroad I never thought of it as a permanent emigration so I'm glad that the opportunity was there to come home. It’s great to be back home with my now-fiancée, friends and family, NZ is so far away, if you go any further you’re on the way back!
It is fantastic that I have that opportunity to move home and it is down to the fact that the construction industry is picking up massively and I'm able to ride that wave thankfully. I've been very fortunate really.
You came back quite early – almost before the recovery in the industry happened. If someone was asking you now if it was a good time to move home, what would you say?
If they are involved in the construction industry, I'd say yes – there are massive opportunities here at the moment from trades to professionals. Just from talking to QS friends and colleagues, the wages are as good if not better now than they would have been during the boom.
I also hear from builders who ring me - “I can't get a QS at the moment” - and it is because there are so many Irish QS's working in Australia, Canada, UK and New Zealand earning good money out there, and there is such a low level of graduates coming out of the colleges here.
For QS's in the industry it really bodes well in the short to medium term, particularly for freelance QS's. It's a fantastic time to be working in Ireland – at the moment I am out the door and there are some very interesting and prestigious projects going on at the moment; it’s a great experience. Since getting my Chartership with The Society of Chartered Surveyors earlier this year, it has opened up a lot more doors for me and will definitely help the growth of my business. Long may it last!
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