Construction booms in major cities across the ASEAN region are stretching the skilled labour force thin, according to Advance Construction’s James Sterling.
Speaking with B2B in a lengthy interview, Sterling outlined a series of factors contributing to what he perceives as a looming gap between the number of projects under development and the number of workers available to carry them through to completion.
The first and most apparent factor is demand. According to Sterling, the demand for labour is so acute that the market is not adequately equipped to cope.
“As an example, during the boom that happened last year, where the peak of construction was going on across the country, there physically wasn’t enough staff to do all this work. Skilled and unskilled staff.”
Of particularly pressing concern are the ravenous construction demands of a rapidly expanding Thai market.
“People are still going to neighbouring countries, and it’s potentially going to get worse,” said Sterling.
“We had a really good team in our Siem Reap office and they left and went to Thailand for the draw of more money,” He said. “It’s worse conditions quite often (in Thailand), and they’re wanting to come back now as well.”
With rapidly urbanising populations right across the ASEAN region, Thailand is not the only concern.
“In Yangon, Myanmar there’s a mini boom going on at the moment,” Sterling said. “And there will be a fully fledged boom soon. How soon? Nobody quite knows. That will potentially draw more construction staff away.”
According to Sterling, the negative effects of this growing regional demand for construction workers are not limited to Cambodia.
“Most of our neighbouring countries have a labour shortage because of the regional boom.”
In Cambodia, one barrier Sterling sees is the lack of vocational training for school leavers.
“In more developed countries, when people leave high school they choose a path. Half go into, well, sitting behind a desk, into managerial roles or administrative roles, the other half go into vocational roles,” he explained.
This isn’t currently happening in Cambodia.
“If people leave a good high school they’ll go to a good college and study management or tourism or administration,” said Sterling.
Office jobs are considered to be more valuable and worthwhile in Cambodia compared to professions like welding or brick-laying, according to Sterling.
“This will need to change, otherwise the country’s going to struggle,” he said. “Especially with the growing middle-classes.”
One positive Sterling identified is NGOs like Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) which offer vocational training services to youths who lack access to good job opportunities.
“Some of our staff have been through other NGO programmes across the country—our welding staff have, for example. There are other NGOs like Child Fund and Indochina Starfish Foundation and I know there’s a few others that do vocational training courses, Friends International do it as well.”
Sterling rates highly the value of interns produced by some of these organisations, a few of whom work within his own company.
“The interns I’ve had have been of a good standard,” he said, “and it’s desperately needed.”
While the vocational programme graduates produced by these NGOs are obviously welcomed, demand still far outstrips supply. In this regard, Sterling said the future is uncertain.
A good solution to making vocational training more attractive would be educating local people about current trends that show skilled labour workers often earn more than some office staff, said Sterling.
“If more people realised this, then they’d be more likely to go into apprenticeship programmes, and more programmes could be established,” he added.
Headache though it may be, the logistics of dealing with such a dramatic regional construction boom and consequent labour demands are a good problem to have. How Cambodia responds to this challenge in the coming years will be of ongoing interest to all those involved in the industry.