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BUSLeague’s Gregor and Domen (IRI UL) have recently travelled from Ljubljana to Ireland for an intense 10-day ethnographic research. As one could expect, we experienced no lack of exceptional traditional music and visits to the pub, yet the focus was firmly on the Irish construction and renovation sector, also due to excellent guidance and support by Benny and other colleagues from TUS Development Unit. The main thing on our agenda was to get a good understanding of existing practices and meanings revolving around upskilling to sustainable energy skills in the Irish context. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, this topic did not always naturally end up at the centre of the conversation, despite it being the focus of our attention.

Wood chips, hydro-power, and hurling sticks

One of the first people we had a privilege to talk to was Colm Byrne, an engaged specialist for renewable energy and owner of a local renewable energy retrofitting business driving local communities towards carbon neutrality. He took us on tour of a sawmill close to Kilkenny known for making hurleys – wooden sticks used in one of Irish people’s favourite national sport. Besides learning about how the sticks are made, and seeing what might be the biggest hurley on Earth, Colm showed us a biomass boiler and a hydroelectric turbine in action. He was one of the brains behind the planning and the hands in charge of the installation of the biomass technology that make the century-old business 100% self-reliant for heat and electricity now for several years, and their hurleys perhaps the most climate-neutral in the country.

Lack of workforce at dawn of rising demand

Towards the end of the tour, chatting casually beside a shack full of woodchip fuel, we steered our conversation towards Colm’s view on sustainable energy skills in the sector. “Does anyone want a job? We’ve got sooo much potential work…” he said with mixed feelings in his voice. In recent months, Colm began rejecting projects, and started thinking about getting workers from eastern Europe to work for him. “Lack of workforce is the single biggest obstacle in the market currently,” and added that in the next two years he could easily see his business grow from a handful of workers to 200 or more, if only there would be enough workers to hire. For him, and many others we’ve met during our time in Ireland, the skills and upskilling of existing workforce were of secondary concern to the overall lack of workforce.

In fact, the issue of chronic lack of workforce in the Irish construction skills market really turned into a leitmotif of our ethnographic expedition. This is largely due to the ambitious Irish government’s plan to tackle the housing crisis by building close to 300,000 homes by 2030. According to the many that we have talked to during our 10 days in Ireland, the lack of workforce is rooted in the society’s traumatizing memory of the 2008/09 economic crash, the poor systemic response to the sector’s needs, and perhaps most importantly, the unrelentingly negative socio-cultural attitudes towards work in construction.

“Up to the neck in muck,” together with unbearably hot or cold “dirty attics”, were associations voiced by several of our interlocutors to describe how the Irish typically imagine working in construction and retrofitting.

The major increase in delivery of new and retrofitted housing planned by the Irish government simply cannot be delivered without a plan to address firstly the lack of workforce, and secondly the lack of skills in the existing workforce. Many believe this plan should involve a solution that would attract significant numbers of new apprentices into the trades and prompt existing workers to upskill towards the industry’s needs, a combination of an efficient recruitment campaign and a functioning training system.

The “biggest” skill one can teach themselves today

Back at the sawmill, Colm finished the topic on a positive note. “So nZEB skills? Now is the right time! I experience that each and every day.” There is prospect, the market for retrofitting is as hot as ever, and there will be no lack of demand and good salaries for the willing workers, he claimed. “How about the fact, also considering what happened to the Celtic Tiger, that there might come another crisis of the sector, and there won’t be such demand anymore,” Domen asked mildly provocatively. “Of course,” said Colm, “it’s Ying and Yang. But being able to reinvent yourself is the biggest skill one can teach themselves today.”

Soon after, our conversation veered off towards innovations in sustainable energy sector and crypto-mining, before finally finishing off our tour with mushroom picking on a nearby meadow. Colm then went on to pursue his businesses’ mission, and we were left with a valuable new experience, lots of new insights to digest, and a handful of fresh mushrooms on the front seat of our electric car, taking us towards the next stop on our ethnographic journey.

Back home, we now try to get a better understanding of what we have learned. Is lack of workforce such a pressing issue all over Europe, or only in Ireland? What impact does it have on upskilling of the existing workforce? Help us find answers and share a comment or reflection in the comments below – what is your understanding and experience of this issue, how does it manifest in your country, and how does it affect the future of upskilling to sustainable energy skills in the EU? We will appreciate your contribution and use it to assess the timeliness and effectiveness of BUSLeague project from the ethnographic perspective.

Authors: Domen Bančič, Gregor Cerinšek, and Benny McDonagh

Date: 17 November 2021