Singapore Construction Sector : The Future of its workforce

Automation

SINGAPORE : On May 11 during a debate over amendments to the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee and Non-Constituent MP Leong Mun Wai had an exchange on the issue of transforming Singapore’s construction sector, particularly on the topic of foreign manpower.

Entry Ban for pass holders from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka

The recent COVID-19 entry ban on long-term pass holders from India and Bangladesh has worsened the manpower crunch that was already plaguing the local construction sector since the start of the pandemic in 2020.  The entry ban barred all long-term pass holders and short-term visitors who have travelled to India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka within the last 14 days from entering or transiting through Singapore. Singapore’s construction industry is especially heavily reliant on foreign migrant workers from India and Bangladesh.

As a result, many construction projects face disruptions and delays. Home buyers are expected to wait longer for their properties. Construction companies are turning to alternative sources of manpower from China and Myanmar. The Building and Construction Authority of Singapore has relaxed rules to allow the hiring of construction workers from China. These alternative sources of manpower are however, more costly.

These tighter border control measures have once again put Singapore’s construction industry’s heavy reliance on foreign migrant workers in the spotlight.

Growing the pool of local manpower in the construction sector

Mr Leong raised the possibility of attracting local Singaporeans to take on jobs as general construction workers by improving wages. He suggested the possibility of diverting the pool of “able-bodied Singaporeans” who work as food delivery riders work to work as general construction workers instead.

Mr Lee argued that the solution is not as simple as just raising wages to attract local Singaporeans to the construction workforce. He also responded that the government has a different approach and that is to rely on automation and mechanization so Singaporeans can be builders with high salaries.

Mr Leong also raised concerns that the built environment sector in Singapore has seen little productivity gain. Mr Lee rebutted and stated that the Ministry of National Development provided details on its efforts to transform the sector and create good local jobs. Mr Lee explained that the 2017 Construction Industry Transformation Map includes partnerships between the government and the industry in a variety of initiatives that are intended to increase the speed of transformation of the sector. These include reducing Singapore’s heavy reliance on foreign migrant workers by raising the skillsets of the foreign migrant workers who are already in Singapore.

Ultimately, it is highly unlikely for the Singapore construction industry to be completely independent of foreign workforce. “At the end of the day, even as we automate, even as we increase productivity… there will still be a need for some foreign workers,” Mr Lee said. “We hope they’ll be more skilled (and we’ll) keep them here to supplement the core of Singaporeans that we want to build for the sector.”

Expert opinion on the impact of automationon the construction sector

A 2019 McKinsey article covers the impact and opportunities of automation on the construction industry. If used in the right approach, it is believed that automation would improve worldwide construction labour shortage.

The overall number of jobs in the construction industry is expected to grow with up to 200 million additional jobs by 2030. This is if countries invest in infrastructure and increase supply of affordable housing. The demand for infrastructure and housing in Asia and Africa are particularly high. Although there are concerns about loss of jobs due to automation, these are expected to be unfounded concerns. The more likely scenario would be workers working side-by-side with automated machinery. Training the current workforce with the necessary skillset to work with automation is also necessary.

Overall, automation is anticipated to increase productivity, reduce human mistakes and enhance coordination. It is unlikely to diminish employment opportunities. Although there is much uncertainty in the construction sector at the moment due to the slow transition to a more automated environment, it is clear that ensuring a trained and ready workforce to adapt would be key in the years to come.

Sources :

https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/desmond-lee-and-ncmp-leong-mun-wai-spar-over-ways-to-transform-construction

https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/operations/our-insights/the-impact-and-opportunities-of-automation-in-construction#

https://www.mnd.gov.sg/our-work/creating-future-ready-industries/construction

https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/bca-relaxing-rules-hiring-china-construction-workers-due-india-travel-ban-some-firms-see

https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/ripples-from-india-the-struggle-to-cope-with-fewer-foreign-workers-in-singapore

https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/construction-firms-facing-higher-costs-foreign-labour-crunch-may-officially-reprice-business-contracts

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