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More room for boom

Published on Friday, 06 Dec 2013
A window (right) reflects the view of Central along the Central-Wan Chai bypass, a section of which is visible under the Convention and Exhibition Centre (left).
Photo: David Wong
Patrick Balfour
Lee Shing-see

Lack of manpower is undermining the otherwise solid prospects of Hong Kong’s property and construction industry

With Hong Kong’s capital works expenditure at an all-time high, the city’s construction industry is flourishing in a golden period, although a manpower shortage is taking some of the shine off its otherwise bright prospects.

According to Construction Industry Council (CIC) chairman Lee Shing-see, Hong Kong’s building industry is in the busiest phase in its history, and the forecast is for the level of activity to continue for some time.

 “It would be fair to say that Hong Kong’s construction industry is at a stage of transformation where all of us, especially those at the top, must look at how we can work differently to achieve a breakthrough in productivity, competitiveness and, more critical, in sustainability,” Lee says.

He says the promising outlook provides the younger generation with the opportunity to pursue a career in a wide choice of construction professions. Reports compiled by the industry project an average annual increase in manpower demand of 1.9 per cent up to 2018. According to figures from the Census and Statistics Department, the city currently has about 82,000 construction workers.

A main driver for growth is the government plan to spend more than HK$70 billion a year on large-scale infrastructure projects including roads, tunnels and rail systems. Construction activities, including those in data centres and residential property, are also boosting manpower demand.

“From our point of view, we expect the career outlook and demand for talent to remain positive,” says Paul Lee, Hsin Chong Construction Group assistant managing director.

Involved in projects such as major railway infrastructure and data centres, Hsin Chong has expanded its civil engineering department from about 20 professionals to more than 380 over the past three years. “We are still looking for more suitable people,” adds Lee.

To build a pipeline of expertise for the future, Lee says Hsin Chong offers a range of well-structured learning programmes designed for employees at all levels, from trainees, graduate engineers, middle management to executive staff.

As the shortage of skilled workers continues to put pressure on the construction industry, Edmond Lai, Gammon Construction director for HR, says they have been working with subcontractors and the Construction Industry Council Training Academy (CICTA) to train new blood in trades with the most serious talent shortage.

Rather than rely on skills provided by subcontractors, Lai says Gammon has adopted a direct-labour model of building up its workforce with multiple skills. “The concept allows us to operate with greater efficiency while adding value to our clients’ projects,” says Lai.

Gammon has also produced a roadmap for each business unit with specific actions for recruiting and developing workers. Lai adds that since 2002, Gammon has launched a comprehensive fellowship programme that offers career-enhancement opportunities for undergraduates of tertiary institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China.

“By participating in this programme, students are given a clear picture of what is expected of them as professional engineers and the skills they need to excel in an engineering career,” says Lai.

Patrick Balfour, manager for property and construction at Robert Walters Hong Kong, says that as demand for talent in construction and engineering continues to heat up, salaries are likely to rise.

“Throughout 2013, we saw this happening in the areas of infrastructure, residential and corporate development,” he says. “At senior level, such demand is most noticeable for electrical and mechanical engineers for data centres. Also, in line with the construction of the MTR, high-speed rail projects, tunnels and bridges, civil and building engineers will see more employment opportunities.

“Due to a strong pipeline of projects from developers, we anticipate challenges in attracting senior staff at management through to director level,” Balfour adds.

He notes that, with many construction companies fishing for expertise in the same talent pool, unless the required skill set is very niche, there is a willingness from employers to hire high-potential professionals with the right work attitude and give them the additional training. In order to attract such candidates, hiring managers are offering training and development opportunities on top of monetary benefits, Balfour adds.

However, he cautions, while the hiring market remains in favour of those with the desired experience and skills, candidates should be conscious of their salary earning potential over the medium to long term rather than gun for a short-term pay rise. “Acquiring new skill sets and work experiences will cumulate into a richer and more substantial future résumé,” Balfour says. 

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