As the building and construction industry enters a long-awaited upturn, employers face the big challenge of finding and recruiting top professionals. One leading construction contractor has drawn up a comprehensive training strategy, along with visible opportunities for career growth, to attract and retain the best talent.
"The government's economic stimulus programme, which includes investments in 10 major infrastructure projects, is revitalising the local building and construction sector," says Edmond Lai, director, human resources, Gammon Construction Limited. "This simultaneously creates a shortage of seasoned professionals."
Since the major projects are related primarily to railroads, highways, tunnels and bridges, they are expected to increase demand for chartered civil engineering experts, especially those skilled in handling sizable projects, notes Mr Lai. "The government, consultants, contractors and land developers will be competing for talent in the same pool," he points out.
Over the last decade, limited prospects prompted many Hong Kong professionals to leave the industry and discouraged new talent from entering the field, resulting in a shortage of talent on levels from site operation to top management.
"About 66 per cent of site workers are aged over 40," says Mr Lai. "Without a succession plan at site level, contractors' businesses may eventually grind to a halt."
Gammon Construction recognises the need to provide its staff with systematic training and so established the Gammon Academy in 2003.
Workshops take place at Gammon's Tseung Kwan O and Quarry Bay offices, with its staff organisation and training structure resembling that of an educational institution. The company's chief operating officer is the academy's vice-chancellor, while senior engineers act as department heads and trainers.
"We constantly review our training programmes so as to bring staff up to speed with the latest business and industry developments," says Mr Lai, adding that the company introduced a new training roadmap early this year, encouraging staff to complete core programmes that cover technical issues, occupational safety and health and general professional matters within a span of three years.
The new training roadmap strategically divides staff into four groups: new recruits, administrative staff, middle managers, and senior management and above. Training programmes, aligned with grade levels, are designed with staff's professional capabilities in mind.
"This highly transparent system enables staff at all levels to visualise their training opportunities and career potential," Mr Lai explains.
The academy also offers a number of elective programmes focusing on business skills such as presentation and report writing, as well as on enhancing management competencies.
The company has in place a month-long induction programme and a three-year training schedule to help fresh graduates obtain the necessary professional qualifications and grow in the profession.
Rather than focusing mainly on classroom training, the graduate training programme accommodates the needs of a young generation of industry professionals. "The induction programme has a strong focus on building team spirit and group learning with activities such as site visits and orientation camps. We also introduce them to some of our CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities, allowing them to participate in community projects that take their interest," says Mr Lai.
He concedes that many young professionals are keen on developing themselves as generalists with their own professional niches. The company is therefore committed to mapping out clear career development paths with ample internal growth opportunities.
The financial downturn has slashed the demand for building professionals worldwide, causing some experienced engineers to return home from projects in the Middle East and Macau. "However, we anticipate a shortfall of civil engineering professionals and skilled workers at the onset of the major infrastructure projects," Mr Lai points out.
Last year, Gammon successfully recruited 89 fresh graduates in Hong Kong, Singapore, mainland China and Macau, with the aim of training them to take up key positions in the future. This year, the company will continue to recruit fresh graduates to meet its future business development needs.
The company has also developed a leadership building system to nurture future leaders. Once prospective leaders are identified, they are placed on an intensive training and development programme to hone their people skills and management capabilities. People with an outstanding track record can expect fast-track developments within the company.
Mr Lai believes that such comprehensive development programmes will help the company retain high-calibre staff. He also feels that deploying mainland engineering professionals in Hong Kong projects will benefit both Hong Kong and mainland China's construction sectors in the long run.