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Building blocks

As far as construction hiring is concerned, Hong Kong's centre of gravity seems to have shifted to Kowloon, with a slew of projects pending, including the Kai Tak developments, the cruise terminal, a new sports stadium, assorted public housing schemes, as well as the arts hub associated with the West Kowloon Cultural District.

Amid this construction bedlam, contractors and developers have had problems getting the right talent for the right roles.

According to Ben Butt, director of Facility Media - which is overseeing the Urban Infrastructure Conference to be held in March this year in Hong Kong - the picture is mixed.

"In general, there is enough of a mid-level talent pool in Hong Kong for current and pending construction projects in Kowloon," he says. "At the senior level, there's a lack of professionals with skills in certain areas for specific projects. There are difficulties in finding specialists such as tunnelling engineers for the MTR projects for example.

"But overall, the recruitment picture is positive and there will be an increase in demand across sectors for architects, urban planners, engineering consultants and construction professionals," Butt adds.

Contractors are also casting their nets globally. "Professionals with experience in museum, arts hub, auditorium and theatre projects will have to be recruited from overseas. However, they will need to be able to implement their ideas and experience in the context of Asian culture," he says.

Luckily, there seems to be growing interest among foreign professionals - particularly those from countries beset by financial woes - to find jobs here. "We have seen a rise of about 30 per cent in the number of candidates applying from abroad," Butt notes.

Dee Allan, managing director of pan-Asian construction recruiting giant 3C Synergy, echoes these views, with a slight twist.

"The main challenge is that demand for talent, particularly 'mid-talent', is intense. Hence, candidates are not available for long periods of time in the market and are being `snapped up' often by the highest bidder, which in-turn is driving costs higher for companies," Allan says.

"It's not just a case of 'company versus company', it's also 'country versus country', as neighbouring Asian countries are also searching for the same skill sets for mega-construction projects across the Asia-Pacific region," she adds.

Allan also sees bottlenecks in tunnelling. "Certain skill sets, such as tunnelling expertise, are hard to source in Hong Kong, as there is a limited pool of candidates, so you often have to search for these skills elsewhere," she says.

"However, it is not necessarily straightforward to get certain permits - for example, for shot-firing permits - so although there is high demand, and supply is available outside Hong Kong, there are still hoops to jump through for the job-seeker to be joined with the hiring company," Allan adds.

But government bureaucracy is only part of the problem. "Some companies' internal hierarchy and procedures mean that they cannot react fast enough to secure available talent, often losing out to competitors who have more nimble and flexible hiring practices," Allan says, adding that most companies are now addressing this problem.

"From a job-seeker's perspective, the outlook is promising, as the candidate often has several career options to choose from," Allan says.

She notes that government and the private sector are working on training and promoting local engineering and construction talent, such as through job fairs. 

Allan also says that education and shrewder strategic public relations can help promote the construction industry as a fertile career ground.

On the issue of costs, Allan notes that builders have been finding it hard to budget precisely given the volatile costs, due largely to higher salaries in the industry. 

"Naturally, the projects have a budget to run to, so increased costs can make projects unviable. This can have a knock-on effect on funding, of course, and we all know about the tightening of bank lending," Allan says.

As timing is an essential factor in construction, she sounds a note of caution. "In the past, global uncertainties have affected mega-projects such as The Venetian in Macau, which was halted for a period. There is always a worry that projects may halt for a period if times become really tough," Allan adds.