Hong Kong compelled to adapt to chronic labour shortage

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Hong Kong’s infrastructural development is hindered by labour shortage in the construction industry, a combined effort from all sectors will shed new light to the issue. (Photo credit: Chris Lusher)

Hong Kong suffers from chronic labour shortage among the construction industry. According to statistics released by the Development Bureau, last year’s annual gross value of construction work from all sectors reached over HK$158 billion, showing huge investment in capital and labour. Construction delays and cost overruns have been particularly experienced by public sector projects, due to the current large-scale plans. There are root issues embedded among the educational and training systems, dis-incentivising young people from entering the construction industry.

To appreciate the scale of labour shortage, a report by the Construction Industry Council (CIC) claims that an additional 10,000-15,000 construction workers are required over the next four years, at least. According to a press release by the Legislative Council, the CIC has received HK$420 million from the Legislative Council to “strengthen the training for local construction personnel and attracting more new and young entrants to join the construction industry, through promotion and publicity.” The CIC launched two pilot schemes in 2015, one upgrades the skills of semi-skilled workers to the level of skilled workers, the other “aims at training in-service ethnic minority general workers to become semi-skilled workers.” These schemes are in place to boost the aggregate skill level across all workers, to increase efficiency and productivity, as well as satisfying the demand for skilled workers.

As reported by a South China Morning Post article, many construction trainees, with majority aged under 35, do not take up employment in the industry after training, despite the CIC’s increase in training of semi-skilled and skilled workers. Hong Kong’s construction industry can be perceived as unattractive due to the project-based employment system for the majority of professions, where employment stability is low. Though since 2011 and the implementation of the “Build-Up Publicity Campaign”, the number of young people interested in joining the industry has increased from 8% in 2011 to 25% in 2015. The Development Bureau and the CIC will collaborate with the industry to promote the utilisation of mechanised processes, technology, and latest innovations to boost construction productivity and alleviate labour demand.

Contributing to labour shortage, Hong Kong along with countries such as the U.S. do not have a strong apprenticeship model, with only 5% of young people trained as apprentices in the U.S. compared to 60% in Germany leading to a mismatch in skills, as stated in a 2014 article by the Atlantic. ‘Dual training’ is the concept behind apprenticeships, where time is spent both in the classroom at vocational schools for theory work and at employing companies for on-the-job training. Trainees are paid throughout training and get involved in the industry by gaining first-hand experience and knowledge.

The Vocational Training Council (VTC) in Hong Kong has similar models and schemes that could be utilised better and made more attractive for young people, creating an alternative career path from the mainstream university/college direction. Furthermore, the Hong Kong MTR Corporation has an established Apprentice Training Scheme, receiving awards for being successful in providing clear and progressive career development for its applicants. Local individual corporations such as Gammon have their own apprenticeship schemes as well, showing the strive towards an apprenticeship based model.

Additionally, looking forward, Hong Kong has an ageing workforce issue which has been highlighted by analysts and top officials due to the retirement of WWII baby boomers, hence shrinking the active labour force. In terms of the local construction industry, over 40% of workers are aged above 50. Based on news from top construction companies and Gammon’s latest issue, investment into innovative technology is taking place which will promote the safety and efficiency of construction works, contributing to the alleviation of labour demand.


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