Labor shortage jeopardizes Spain’s EU-funded recovery plan

  • Spain urgently needs half a million construction workers
  • European Union post-COVID aid money at stake
  • The bursting of the 2008 housing bubble in Spain triggered the labor exodus
  • Ireland, Germany and others are grappling with a similar problem

MADRID, Feb 17 (Reuters) – When Spain’s decade-long property boom erupted in spectacular fashion in 2008, some 1.8 million jobs disappeared and a nation littered with cranes and building sites plunged into recession brutal.

Now these construction workers are urgently needed: an unprecedented labor shortage is jeopardizing multi-billion euro construction and renovation projects funded by the European Union to help the economy Spanish to recover from COVID-19.

Like elsewhere on the continent, Spain lacks at least half a million construction workers, according to unions and companies. Companies train new employees around the clock, pay better and rely on migrants from Africa and Latin America.

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“If you have a certificate, companies will hire you,” enthused Moustapha Diedhiou during a break from an evening scaffolding class in Madrid.

The 32-year-old Senegalese arrived on a rickety boat in 2019, picked fruit for a living during the pandemic, but now works as a bricklayer thanks to another previous journey.

Although scaffolding is more risky, it can earn more.

Despite such ardor, at least seven in 10 construction companies had to turn down contracts in 2021 due to a lack of staff, according to preliminary data seen by Reuters from a survey by Spain’s main building association.

And that before the first 5 billion euros ($5.65 billion) of housing rehabilitation funds are put up for auction this spring.

After Italy, Spain receives the most aid from the EU: around 140 billion euros ($166 billion), half grants and half loans.

The government is pinning the funds on hopes of 7% economic growth this year, but red tape, material shortages and labor shortages are hampering investment.


Spain had nearly 3 million property workers before the 2008 implosion, after which many took refuge in the equally massive tourism sector. Now they seem reluctant to return.

Employers, unions and the government have therefore teamed up to organize free training courses for potential builders. They attracted 90,000 people in 2021, and the goal is now 200,000.

At a course in Madrid earlier this month, most of those enrolled were migrants from non-EU countries, optimistic that with Spain they too would see a turnaround.

Francisco Dieguez, director of a training institute in Catalonia, said the typical annual salary of a construction worker of 24,000 euros exceeded the salary of some architects.

Most other manual workers earn around 18,500 euros.

Jose Adel Sosua, who teaches Senegalese immigrant Diedhiou, is appalled at how difficult it is to attract students, blaming bad memories of the housing crisis.

“A lot of Spaniards don’t want to take these courses, partly because they’re a bit afraid to go back to work in this sector,” said Sousa, whose 15 students included only one Spaniard.

Spain is second behind Greece for unemployment in Europe, with almost one in three young people unemployed. A survey of people aged 15 to 29 at work last year found that 11% worked on construction sites.

“Here in Spain they say that if you don’t study you have to be a bricklayer, as if it were a punishment,” said Sergio Estela, leader of the General Union of Spanish Workers (UGT-FICA).

Crane operators, carpenters, welders and site managers are the rarest, according to a dozen sources from unions and companies, because they require officially accredited training.

Ismael Lazaro, a 24-year-old Spaniard, took a welding course after losing his job as an Amazon delivery driver. He is the only one among his friends trying to get into construction. “My mom told me there was a lot of demand for welders,” he said.


The situation echoes throughout Europe.

Although less affected by the pandemic, Germany, France, Ireland and the UK are also short of hundreds of thousands of construction workers, according to employers’ associations.

Combined with supply chain disruptions, this has put pressure on wages and prices in the sector, contributing to record inflation in the eurozone. Read more

“It’s a complicated balance between finding skilled workers, having to pay more and dealing with investors who are fighting hard on prices,” said Miguel Fernandez, 42, managing director in Spain of the construction and construction company. Tetris design.

German industry lobbying association ZDB said more employees were retiring than apprentices joining the construction workforce, with around 150,000 workers expected to leave over the next decade.

“Jobs remain vacant for a long time. Even apprenticeship places remain vacant, although we train more and more every year,” said ZDB spokeswoman Ilona Klein.

Germany also counts on migrants. Yards are dominated by central and southern Europeans, who made up 22% of the workforce in 2021, up from 8% in 2008.

Like Spain, Ireland haemorrhaged workers at the end of its own “Celtic Tiger” housing boom in 2007.

Today, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (IFAC) estimates that the number of builders needs to rise by around a third to 180,000 to meet demand amid record foreign investment. Tech giants Facebook (FB.O) and LinkedIn (MSFT.O) are building huge campuses in Dublin.

Back in Madrid, dozens of undocumented migrants gather early each day in Plaza Eliptica square, hoping to be chosen by driving employers looking for temporary painters or masons.

Some 400,000 foreign workers left after Spain’s 2008 financial crisis, many of them using residence in the EU to find work elsewhere in the region. Falling to just 13% of construction workers in 2012, they have fallen to one in five today.

“The square is salvation for migrants who need work,” said Alberto, a 54-year-old welder who arrived six months ago from Colombia.

The president of the National Chamber of Construction (CNC), Pedro Fernández Alén, wants the state to support more training, especially by incorporating more women in the male-dominated sector.

Spain’s unemployed should be given priority, but “if we don’t find workers, we will have to go abroad to bring them in,” he said.

“Otherwise, many projects we want to start will be unmanned and we will stop receiving European funds.”

($1 = 0.8847 euros)

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Reporting by Corina Pons and Belén Carreño in Madrid; Additional reporting by Klaus Launer in Berlin; David Miliken in London; Francesco Canepa in Frankfurt; Leigh Thomas in Paris; Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Aislinn Laing and Andrew Cawthorne

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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