Labour shortage clips the wings of Hong Kong's logistics hub

Jeffrey Lam calls for a push to promote skills training in schools

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2013, 1:42am

In his maiden policy address, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying stressed the importance of Hong Kong's logistics industry, one of the four traditional economic pillars that have made the city a successful business centre.

To reinforce its status as a regional hub for passenger and cargo traffic, Hong Kong will continue to improve its aviation, maritime and land transport facilities, according to Leung's forward thinking.

Thanks to Beijing's support of Hong Kong's position as an international logistics centre, more and more flights and cruises now stop here. The increasing demand for aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul services has prompted Boeing to set up an Aviation Services Research Centre in Hong Kong, the first of its kind for our city.

The Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, to open in June, and a third runway, planned for 2023, have also been placed high on the agenda.

However, the city's logistics industry has been complaining of a lack of semi-skilled workers and other talent - one of the strengths that the industry was built on. This requires the government's urgent attention before it affects the entire industry.

The Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company (Haeco) issued a profit warning last October, saying demand for airframe maintenance and line maintenance in Hong Kong remained firm, but the company could not meet that demand because of a shortage of skilled and semi-skilled labour, particularly for avionics and cabin modification work. This, it said, would have an adverse effect on the company's consolidated turnover and operating profit for the second half of 2012 and at least the first half of this year.

Such a profit warning is unprecedented for listed companies in Hong Kong. It should prod the government to address the workforce issue if it wants Hong Kong to remain Asia's key transport hub.

According to the statistics bureau, the unemployment rate for youths aged between 15 and 24 was 7.7 per cent for the last quarter of 2012, compared with an overall unemployment rate of 3.3 per cent in the same period.

This skills mismatch - reflected by high youth unemployment while many employers are crying out for skilled labour - has lingered for years.

It's time for the government to tackle it, by ensuring that the logistics industry gets the talent it needs. It should encourage young people to take up technical or engineering education and help semi-skilled workers further upgrade their skills.

Skilled talent can only be developed with the right education. However, local colleges tend to stress liberal arts over technical expertise. This is good for students who want jobs in the liberal arts field. But that's not the case for everyone: those who apply for a four-year college course simply because it's seen as the next step could end up without the skills necessary for a career.

Yet, there are huge opportunities for skilled personnel in the logistics sector, where skilled and semi-skilled jobs come with a steady salary, continuous career development and good promotion prospects. The government should place a greater emphasis on logistics careers by promoting the merits of the skills needed, increasing training allowances and providing job training and other courses at the various institutes.

With aeronautics identified in the current national five-year plan as one of seven "rising" industries by the central government, job opportunities will abound for Hong Kong people in the maintenance, repair and overhaul of equipment, ensuring our key role in the country's aeronautics development.

Industry and education go hand in hand. If the chief executive wants to expand the city's logistics sector, the best way is through the promotion of the necessary skills in schools, offering programmes that train more young people to be the skilled and semi-skilled workers the sector needs.

Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung is a legislative councillor in the commercial (first) functional constituency