Ahead of retiring this summer as Director General of the Construction Industry Federation, Tom Parlon reflects on 16 years at the helm
As the CIF’s Director General for the last 16 years, Tom Parlon has been a passionate advocate for the organisation, its members and the industry as a whole. Reflecting on some of the highlights of his tenure he believes there is also much to look forward to.
“I was part of a delegation recently that met with a group of South Africans to encourage them to come and work in Ireland,” he says. “When we go to extol the virtues of our industry … we have excellent health and safety records and good rates of pay. It’s an industry we can be very proud of and that can stand up with the best in the world.”
Innovation will prove to be a powerful tool for the construction sector when it comes to keeping pace with building demands and encouraging new people and their skillsets into the industry.
“Innovation is changing all of the time and being embraced now. Through the Construction Sector Group, we have a big investment by the Government in centres of excellence from the National Construction Training Centre and National Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) Demonstration Park at Mount Lucas in Co. Offaly,” Parlon says.
“These will help to support the industry, which is working to catch up with the level of new technology that’s available to it.” Parlon recently attended the Conference of the European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC) in Rome, where geopolitical developments and the aftermath of the covid pandemic topped the agenda.
“At FIEC it was intriguing and eye-opening to see that in every country, from Israel to Ukraine and among other members of the European Union, a common industry problem right across the globe is the scarcity of people, and not just in construction,” says Parlon who believes the next generation of talent will have a significant impact through technology on delivering the built environment.
“We have to embrace the whole area of technology and take full advantage of it. We must be ahead of it, not behind,” he says. “Likewise, climate change and sustainability issues are, and will continue to be, of mega importance.
“We need to be thinking of all these areas and how they will affect future buildings. Our industry is a big carbon player so we also have a responsibility there.”
Encouraging young people to consider construction as a viable career choice must be a cornerstone for skills and training initiatives, Parlon says.
“One of the big difficulties is that our national education system has been entirely designed to encourage people to go for third level,” he adds. “It has not put the same emphasis or attraction upon people with trades. That is changing now. We have a new minister and department for higher education and training. That’s a positive.
“When we compare ourselves to Germany, Austria or even the UK, there is a bigger emphasis on encouraging young people to take up a trade. “Our qualified tradespeople are well paid, enjoy their work, have great diversity and can travel anywhere around the world to pick up a job.
“There are a lot of positives, but as a representative body of the industry we need to ensure we get our share of talent and new people into our industry.”
Thanking those he has worked alongside over the years, Parlon paid a special tribute to the late Hank Fogarty, a former CIF President who also served as CECA President from 2003 to 2005 and was the first Chair of the CIF’s Fair Contracts Committee.
“Alas, Hank is no longer with us, Lord rest him,” he says. “I would like to acknowledge the 10 presidents I’ve worked with from all different organisations within the CIF. I tried to support all of them during their terms. They were all fantastic ambassadors for the construction industry and brought their experience to great effect when meeting government ministers and senior civil servants.”
A community housing project in collaboration with the Peter McVerry Trust also comes to mind when Parlon reflects on the last decade and a half.
“When Michael Stone was CIF President we got involved with the Peter McVerry Trust, whose CEO is Pat Doyle. We took on a derelict site project at Hogan Place and asked our members to contribute.
“Walls provided a project manager who pulled everyone together, and my colleague Sean Downey, our Director for Specialist Contracting, took on most of the responsibility within the CIF.
“We handed over 12 fabulously-appointed individual units to the trust about 12 months later in what was a million-euro investment. It was a great example of what the CIF and industry can do together.”
This kind of teamwork and collaborative mindset once again came into play during the Covid-19 pandemic. “During Covid, I was part of the Labour Employer Economic Forum (LEEF) on behalf of the CIF and took part in regular meetings with the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and ministers. It was from that the construction industry came up with the protocol to get us back to work.
That was put together under the then-CIF President Frank Kelly,” says Parlon noting the CIF has great credibility when it comes to being able to offer valuable expertise.
“It brought together some of the best health and safety experts in the world working for our member companies and some of the country’s biggest multinationals. We had superbly qualified people who were contributing voluntarily to a committee and many other sectors went on to borrow from this protocol.
“We had massive input and direct access to government at what was a very worrying time for the whole country. It allowed the construction industry to be one of the first to open up and to do so very safely.”
Construction carries a particular legacy, says Parlon, referring back to a period of peak and trough during the financial crisis. It was at this time that he had just stepped into the role of Director General in 2007.
“We have to work very hard to improve the image of the industry. The recession had dreadful implications for both CIF member companies and the entire workforce. The scale of the industry was halved. It was a tough time but thankfully things have changed around now.”
AECOM’s construction review of Ireland 2022 estimated the value of construction output in the Republic at approximately €32billion, fast approaching Celtic Tiger era levels of around €38billion.
“We are at a situation now where there is a labour deficit,” says Parlon. “Workers and tradespeople are highly valued and they are well paid for the work they do but it’s also a difficult market for employers. Ensuring we have enough people will be a continuous challenge.”
Along the lines of Edith Piaf, Parlon admits he is not one to regret much. Though looking back he does have this to say on the topic of diversity in the construction sector.
“I think we’ve talked a great game about inclusion but we need to see more women within the industry and also among its leadership channels, for example, another female President in the CIF,” he says. “We need women to head up our committees. If we’re serious about this and going into schools promoting inclusiveness. Maybe it’s something I didn’t push enough. We do need to walk the walk.”
Lobbying on policy issues and representing the interests of CIF members have been a mainstay of Parlon’s tenure as Director General.
“Our procurement system, particularly with regards to the lack of price variation clauses, cannot cope with the current high levels of inflation, which up to February of this year stood at 14.7 per cent in construction.
“Our government form of contract just does not legislate for this, which means either projects will not go ahead or you will be in the difficult situation of having signed up for a contract a year and a half ago and there’s no capacity within the contract for inflation.
“I was of the impression that other countries had much better models than we do but unfortunately they don’t. But just because it doesn’t happen anywhere else is no reason for us not to create a better way. If inflation is a fact of life it has to be accommodated.”
Parlon believes the planning system is also ‘grossly underfunded’.
“Planning is so complicated now, with opportunities for people to make challenges and draw down on European rules,” he says.
“The law is favouring objectors. There is a Government review incoming but I don’t think it will go far enough. If there is uncertainty contractors cannot afford to make big investments. This is across the board from essential water or sewerage treatment plants to new power generators and wind farms.”
“Construction depends on both private and public investment in infrastructure,” he adds pointing also towards some of the industry positives.
“We are very lucky, probably because of good management of the Irish economy, that we have very strong inward investment, foreign direct investment, in terms of Medtech, IT and data centres. It’s very good news when you have big sites like Intel employing over 6,000 people on that one site.
“We also had an announcement just recently from Dexcom on a new pharma company in Athenry, Co. Galway. That green field site will go on to employ 1,000 people in the manufacture of a new device that will monitor diabetes levels. On the industry side there will be 500 people and maybe €200-300million spent on construction – that’s wonderful.”
He also shares thoughts on the green agenda. “We are going to have to renew our energy generation,” he says. “There is a lot of talk recently about offshore wind and there will be massive investment there, likewise with transport.
“Right across the board, we have a problem with our utilities. The Irish Water model is not working, which is not to put any blame on those working within Uisce Éireann. They are currently spending about €1.2billion. Their chief executive has said they need to spend €50billion to be up to where we should be.”
This summer Parlon may be hanging up his CIF directorship but remains energised about the industry and what lies ahead, particularly in the areas of climate change, insurance and bonding.
“I’m looking forward to not going into work but that’s also going to be a bit of a trauma to me,” he jokes. “I’ve picked up quite a bit of experience and I want to continue to be involved in some capacity. I’ve been blessed with good health and energy, and seeing close friends go through various health issues makes me appreciate how important it is. Keeping busy and having something to get up for every morning is a very good incentive.”
He says he will remain a passionate supporter of the construction sector, an industry he admires greatly.
“I will say this about construction. It’s a very tough industry. It doesn’t matter if you’re one of our biggest firms turning over a billion plus or a smaller family firm, it’s tough. But so are the people who work within our industry, the kind of people who are going to keep this economy going and I’m very proud of them. I hope that work ethic continues.”
The months ahead, however, look set to include pursuits of a more leisurely kind.
“I’m a big hurling and Offaly fan and this year for the first time there is a bit of a revival,” says Parlon. “I’m looking forward to Offaly maybe winning the odd All-Ireland and competing at a better level. It’s such a gee up for any county. The recent Offaly Under20 Leinster final against Wexford, which unfortunately I missed as I was in London,
was sold out. It just goes to show you the passion that’s there.”
And for Tom Parlon, unbound passion too for the construction industry.