Time for decisive action on manpower shortage

April 09, 2019 18:59
Hong Kong needs to resolve its talent and manpower shortage problem quickly if the city is to maintain its competitiveness and safeguard its development potential, experts say. Photo: HKEJ

According to the latest Asian Competitiveness Annual Report from the Boao Forum for Asia, South Korea and Taiwan were both up two places, getting ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively.

Meanwhile, Singapore and Hong Kong were bumped down the list, coming in at the third and fourth positions.

As Hong Kong is facing an acute labor and human resource shortage, there is urgent need for decisive action to address the issues of inadequate talent and lack of manpower. Otherwise, the city could see its competitiveness and development potential undermined further.

Take the recent series of incidents involving the operation and projects of MTR Corporation as an example. I believe the rail operator is among the entities that are suffering from inadequate talent and manpower, which led to problems such as system failures, service delays and even a train collision.

When it was first established in the late 1970s, MTR was an independent public institution owned wholly by the Hong Kong government and charged with providing highly efficient mass transit service for the city.

It wasn’t until 2000 when, out of financial reasons, the government offloaded some stake and allowed it to become a publicly traded company.

In order to look for new growth engines so as to come up to the expectations of shareholders, MTR's management then began to aggressively explore overseas markets, among other initiatives to expand its business.

To meet the needs of its expanding business operations in the mainland as well as elsewhere overseas, MTR re-assigned a lot of its highly experienced railway management talent to the new business footholds.

As a result, some relatively less experienced managers and outsourced contractors were put in charge of running the railway networks in Hong Kong.

Given MTR’s decades-long experience in operating a railway system, there must have been a comprehensive and time-tested mechanism in place for accurately projecting the usage and lifespan of critical equipment in the rail networks as well as the estimated time for major repairs.

Also, there must have been a well-established automatic algorithm program in place within the company to give orders to various departments for carrying out pre-operation checks of the equipment. 

Now, we come to several questions: did the staffers complete their assigned tasks properly? Have the system examiners verified the test findings thoroughly? And were the managers keeping up with the times when it came to enhancing the railway operation procedure and system over the years?

It may purely be a management issue, dealing with aspects such as training, experience and selection. But again, the question is, did MTR have enough talent to carry out the important tasks?

The management appears to have noticed the problem of talent shortage, prompting it to establish the MTR Academy in November 2016 to train top-class rail professionals, but the initiative may have come too late.

An interim report by the Commission of Inquiry into the Construction Works at and near the Hung Hom Station Extension under the Shatin to Central Link Project, released recently by the government, has indicated that lying at the root of the structural flaws at the Hung Hom Station were the quality of construction workers and the professionalism of their managers.

As a matter of fact, labor shortage has remained the single biggest problem plaguing the local construction industry in recent years, resulting in soaring construction costs of projects.

Also even if there are new business contracts, local construction firms simply don’t have enough workers to deliver them, hence giving rise to poor quality work as well as unsatisfactory project cost estimation and control.

That explains why the quality control at several major infrastructure projects has deteriorated in recent years.

Overall, it is evident that the problem of labor shortage has taken an increasingly heavy toll on various industries and among different job functions.

Since there is no quick fix to this pressing issue, the most urgent task lying before the government right now is to import foreign workers and professional talent, as well as optimize the use of technology in order to protect the city’s competitiveness.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 6

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Dr Allen Shi Lop-tak is the first vice president of the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong.