A shortage of construction professionals with local experience and Cantonese skills is boosting salaries in the sector and prompting employers to hunt overseas for top engineering talent.
Alarmed by the increase in projects after several lean years, industry players are calling on the government to pace its civil works properly to avoid a cycle of feast and famine for the sector.
Among the huge private and civil works sucking up engineering talent are the government’s “Ten Major Infrastructure Projects”, the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort expansion and Macau’s building spree. As a result, there has been an overheating demand for civil engineers, mechanical and electrical engineers, general construction managers and interior designers.
“Companies are competing among themselves for the right talent in civil engineering,” says a spokesman for the Hong Kong Construction Association (HKCA), which represents domestic developers and contractors. “As a result, [salaries are] climbing up. Employers are offering 10-20 per cent remuneration increment to attract new employees.”
He adds that construction sector employers are looking further afield, hiring experienced engineers from the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia. Christopher Armstrong, a Judd Farris Property Recruitment managing consultant, points to an urgent need for expatriates in a few positions, such as tunneling technology, bridge building, structural and façade engineering. He says expatriates are only brought in when there are no qualified local candidates.
A Filipino project planning engineer, who has worked in Hong Kong for 17 years, says response to job ads had been weak and almost all applicants were not qualified. In the end, they had to hunt for engineers abroad.
“Luckily, we have seen a lot of former Hong Kong-based engineers coming back from Macau, Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” he says, adding that about 5 per cent of his company’s workforce are expatriates, although that proportion is inching up as they increase their overseas hiring.
In terms of compensation, he says most returning Hong Kong engineers – who had left the city for juicy job packages overseas – have become more realistic. “Still, I think our compensation package is better than in most other countries in the region,” he says.
Another source of worry is the dearth of local engineering graduates. “Even if there is no sudden surge in demand from the government and MTRC, the local education system can barely support local civil engineering demand,” says the HKCA spokesman.