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Growing demand for skilled workers in Hong Kong’s major construction projects

Published on Saturday, 25 Jul 2015

Skilled workers are desperately needed 

Government spending on construction is set to rise by more than HK$50 billion over the next decade, as 10 major public infrastructure projects are carried out across Hong Kong, according to the Construction Industry Council (CIC). 

But the projects, which include a third runway for Hong Kong International Airport and completion of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, face the risk of delays and spiralling costs due to an acute shortage of skilled construction workers. Analysts say this results from an ageing workforce and the reluctance of young people to join the industry. 

According to recruitment specialists Manpower Group, Hong Kong suffered from a shortage of 10,000 skilled construction workers last year, while the group’s most recent report shows an expected 20 per cent increase in hiring for the sector.

To address the issue, the Development Bureau has joined forces with the CIC to launch the HK$320 million Build Up training programme, which includes nine courses targeted at new entrants to the construction industry. The Enhanced Construction Manpower Training Scheme (ECMTS) will offer a maximum monthly training allowance of HK$6,000 plus a “course completion allowance” of HK$2,000. 

“By providing a higher monthly training allowance, the applications received for these two courses are among the highest in the programme, which also helped to alleviate the manpower shortage in the industry,” a CIC spokesman says. “In addition, about 60 per cent of the ECMTS trainees were aged below 35, and most of them were new entrants, indicating that more young people have joined the industry.” 

Among the programme’s 6,321 graduates, the employment rate is approximately 90 per cent, he says. About 60 per cent of graduates received a starting salary of HK$15,000 per month or above, whilst 27 per cent were paid between HK$10,000 and HK$15,000 per month. 

Dean Stallard, regional director of recruitment group Hays Hong Kong, says strong demand is expected to continue in the years ahead. This is due to the large civil infrastructure projects that are underway and the fact that public expenditure for new development areas, such as the North East New Territories New Development Areas and the Tung Chung expansion, remains buoyant. 

“These projects have created jobs for chartered civil engineers with road, ground and structural backgrounds in particular,” he says.

According to Hays’ quarterly report, there will be a high demand for business development managers and project managers in retail  during the third quarter of 2015.

“Tightness in the labour market is now leading to wage inflation in the construction industry in Hong Kong as businesses struggle to attract and retain the skills they need. Without action to address these skills mismatches, further wage pressure and an increasing inability to staff key roles will become more prevalent,” Stallard says.

According to Thomas Tse Che-wah, secretary general of the Hong Kong Construction Association (HKCA), the Build Up programme is a good start but it has not yet attracted enough applicants.

“The Build Up programme has helped raise the public awareness on the career opportunities in the construction industry but the number of new entrants it has recruited so far has yet to meet the industry demand,” Tse says. 

One of the challenges facing the construction industry is its constantly changing needs. Another problem is that different skills are needed at different stages of a project. “Productivity, construction duration, method, design, and technology, etc, would determine the types, trades and skill levels of tradesmen in demand,” he says. “It will change over time and with each stage of construction.”

Tse says both quick fixes and long term measures are needed. “In the short term, I think sourcing temporary supply through the Supplemental Labour Scheme in parallel with local training is the option,” he says. “Industry should keep on training as many locals as possible. Work volume needs to be maintained at the current level to provide prospects and incentives.”

Stallard has three recommendations for government and the private sector that he says would help to remedy the shortage of skilled construction workers. First, businesses should partner with education authorities “to create education systems that ensure they are producing graduates with the skills that closely align with what businesses need”. Next, the government should “work with businesses to ensure that labour regulations are developed with the direct aim of increasing the availability of workers with the required skills”. Finally, the government should “draw a clear distinction between mass immigration and skilled migration to ensure organisations have access to the skilled workers they need”.

Other institutions in Hong Kong are also doing their part. The Vocational Training Council offers full time degrees targeted at school-leavers who want to work in civil engineering, structural engineering and construction jobs. The Department of Construction at the Institute of Vocational Education offers diploma and higher diploma courses in building studies, building surveying, quantity surveying, building technology and interior design.

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Skills gap.

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