On paper, the government's construction plans look impressive. An array of massive infrastructure projects such as the bridge to Zhuhai and Macau and the airport's third runway are on their way. But on the ground, it is a different story. A chronic shortage of skilled workers in the construction industry could end up delaying completion of these multibillion-dollar projects by years, industry insiders fear. The Development Bureau, responsible for implementing public sector infrastructure projects, said the city's total construction expenditure - both public and private sector - last year reached HK$200 billion. The Construction Industry Council has forecast Hong Kong's annual overall construction expenditure will remain at between HK$170 billion and HK$240 billion in the next few years. But the infrastructure spending binge will run into the bottleneck created by the tight manpower situation. The council - established by the government in 2007 to reform the industry - forecasts a shortage of 10,000 to 15,000 skilled labourers in the coming years. The bureau concedes there could be serious problems ahead. "Labour shortages may affect the progress of construction works and may even lead to deferrals to the commencement of worthwhile infrastructure projects," it said, warning that the local economy could be caught in a vicious circle. "A more acute construction peak several years later … may result in more severe labour shortages and delay the realisation of the economic and social benefits of these projects." Meanwhile, the construction industry is worried that the simultaneous launch of several major projects will send material and wage costs rising steeply. Lawrence Ng San-wa, president of the Hong Kong Construction Subcontractors Association, said: "Skilled labourers specialised in areas such as bar-bending or timber formwork installation, depending on experience, have seen wages rise five to 10 per cent since November. "They can earn HK$1,100 to HK$1,300 a day". In a bid to tackle the problem, the government has joined forces with the council to train workers and attract more new recruits to the industry. The administration highlighted the Enhanced Construction Manpower Training Scheme, which focuses on semi-skilled workers in trades with projected labour shortages due to ageing or recruitment difficulties. The scheme attracts entrants with enhanced training allowances. By the end of last year, more than 6,000 semi-skilled workers had trained under the scheme, about 60 per cent of them under the age of 35. Despite such efforts, the administration still thinks Hong Kong will have to continue to import foreign labour, but officials stressed they will safeguard the interests of local workers. Ng said that the city also needed to import construction workers to solve short-term labour shortages, adding it was crucial that workplace safety and infrastructure quality were not compromised by a lack of manpower. The Real Estate Developers Association (REDA) has urged the government to relax the rules on importing labour to keep rising construction costs in check, but the move has been vehemently opposed by unions and labour activists. Current policy on importing foreign labour states local workers must be given priority in filling job vacancies. Only employers who have shown that they are genuinely unable to recruit local workers can turn to imported workers. The government's Supplementary Labour Scheme allows employers with genuine difficulties in finding suitable staff locally to import workers at the level of technician or below. Workers brought in under the scheme must be paid at least the median monthly wage of local workers in comparable positions and be accorded no less favourable treatment than local workers. Imported workers are also only allowed to work for the employers on specific projects and must leave Hong Kong when their contracts end. But REDA has argued the scheme should be made more flexible to allow imported workers to move between different projects in the public sector to tackle manpower shortages. The trade unions, however, said there was a mismatch of skills that needed to be better addressed. For example, some workers specialised in installing timber formwork have complained that they could not find this type of job and were just hired as general workers, who are usually paid less. Labour activists claim better planning by the council and improved training for workers can help address the problem. While Hong Kong may be bearing the brunt of such challenges, industry insiders said surging construction costs due to rising wages and material costs were not unique to the city. Hong Kong Institution of Engineers president Victor Cheung Chi-kong said higher construction costs and project delays had developed into a global phenomenon. He argued that the shortage of engineers in the city was not serious and welcomed progress on several large projects. Infrastructure investment would support economic growth, Cheung added. He admitted the controversial third runway project - with completion expected by 2023 - was a "big challenge". However he argued engineers would see it as a platform to "innovate and improve their workflow". But Cheung said the city's infrastructure boom may not last amid fears future major projects relying on public money would be shelved because of filibustering in the Legislative Council. Under a financing plan that includes levying surcharges on passengers and airlines, the HK$141.5 billion third runway project will not need Legco approval. However, lawmakers have in recent years delayed projects such as landfill expansion and a waste incinerator through filibustering tactics. "People will leave engineering if there are not enough projects ... And they won't come back after they leave the profession," Cheung warned.