SINGAPORE – Electricians these days have any number of high tech tools like laser gauges, but the failed gadgets still cannot replace skilled workers.
No matter how advanced the equipment is, most still require a trained operator, and many of these roles are filled by migrant workers.
Mr John Tan, general manager of TYE Engineering, an electrical contractor, said his company has incorporated new technology into its daily work wherever possible, but it is impossible to reduce the workforce.
“It is very difficult to be fully automated as every job site has different requirements and some things can only be done manually by skilled workers,” said Mr. Tan, who employs around 12 foreign workers as electricians and another eight as assistants.
The new entry restrictions for South Asian workers have effectively drained the pool of workers in the construction industry, which has been struggling with an already reduced workforce since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic last year.
Workers from India and Bangladesh make up the majority of the construction workers here.
Some industry players estimate that the pandemic has pushed technology adoption by around five years, but applying these advances to address labor shortages is not that straightforward.
Take prefabrication technology, which allows structures to be made in a manufacturing facility before they are assembled on site.
This may work for HDB (Housing Board) apartments or condominium projects, but it may not work for building land.
Ian Teo, Director of Construction at THL, said, “For HDB blocks or condos, every level is copied and pasted. So using prefabricated houses can help reduce lead time. However, each lot looks different, making it difficult to implement .
“Small construction companies like us will try automated machines if it makes economic sense for us. Most current machines are mostly intended for larger projects, however.”
The disruption caused by Covid-19 has led the government to push the construction industry to adopt digital solutions.
One such solution is to leverage cloud-based platforms to digitally collaborate on construction projects and reduce reliance on paper-based processes.
Contractors told The Straits Times that they are having a hard time replacing skilled workers like electricians and air conditioning technicians who have spent years refining their workmanship.
Small companies like Mr. Teo’s usually lead a lean team and train their employees in several roles, as they only take on three to five locations per year.
For example, a bricklayer can also be trained to lay tiles.
“We can try to attract more workers from other countries of origin, but people forget that we need time to train workers,” said Teo, adding that it takes two to three years to train unskilled workers and even longer to do in order to be proficient in their workplaces.
Workers also have to adhere to safe management practices at the sites, which has severely impacted productivity.
These measures require contractors to zoning sites and workers to remain in their designated areas to prevent intermingling.
In practice, this means that jobs that would normally be done at the same time, such as ceiling and electrical work, are now split up to save time, resulting in less efficient workflows and longer delays, contractors say.
“Working in zones means that Team B can only enter if Team A leaves and the cycle repeats,” said Teo. “What could have been done in two weeks last time will probably take three to four weeks now.”
And the challenges for contractors don’t end there. The number of workers allowed on a construction site at the same time has also been drastically reduced.
Before Covid-19, there could be 60 to 70 employees on site at the height of a large project like a shopping mall, said Leong Cheng Wee, director of method engineering.
There are barely enough workers to walk around these days, even if safe management measures don’t already limit the number on site, he added.
“In the past, with four or five projects in progress, you could get extra help from your subcontractors who send staff, but now you cannot because not all of the staff are employed,” said Leong.
“Now you have to ration your workers – maybe send two or three workers instead of ten to appease your customers,” he added.
The new entry restrictions for South Asian workers have effectively dried up the pool of workers in the construction industry. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Contractors like Mr Leong say they are now reluctant to apply for new jobs and are taking a wait and see approach.
“If there are not enough people to handle projects and they drag on, you run the risk of compromising your relationship with your customers. Worse, overhead costs rise and your business is in danger of being closed.” , he said.
Singapore Specialists Trade Alliance executive director Eddy Lau said it was not uncommon for bosses to roll up their sleeves to oversee workers at the sites, given the battle with manpower shortages.
“It’s got to a point where it’s pretty difficult to plan,” he noted.
“But we’re grateful that the Covid-19 cases in the dormitories have been pretty stable these days, so at least the work can still continue, even though it may take longer to complete.”
Impact on major health, housing and infrastructure projects
Woodlands Health Campus
The first 1,800-bed hospital in Woodlands was originally scheduled to open gradually starting next year. It will now open from 2023.
Integrated supply hub of Tan Tock Seng Hospital
The 500-bed rehabilitation complex, which will be connected to the main hospital by a sky bridge, will open in 2023, a year later than planned.
Building of the Emergency Hospital of Singapore General Hospital
The casualty and emergency facility, which will be connected to the main hospital complex and the nearby Outram Community Hospital, will open in 2024, a year later than planned.
The Singapore General Hospital’s emergency medicine building will open in 2024, a year later than planned. PHOTO: ST FILE
Polyclinics in Eunos, Kallang and Bukit Panjang
The polyclinics were originally scheduled to open late last year, but are now set to open late this year.
Build-to-order residential projects (BTO)
Some BTO projects are expected to be postponed for a year or more from the original six to nine month delay period, although it is unclear which projects will be affected. 89 BTO projects are currently running.
Thomson East Shoreline
The second stage of the MRT line, which was scheduled to open in the first quarter of this year, is expected to open in the third quarter. The rest of the line will gradually open in three stages from 2022 to 2025.
Jurong Region Line
Construction of most of the stations and viaducts on the seventh MRT line is underway. Completion is scheduled for 2029, a year later than originally announced.
An artistic impression of the JS9 station on the Jurong Region Line. PHOTO: LTA
Cross the island line
Construction of the first stage of the eighth MRI line has started. The first leg is slated to open in 2030 and the Punggol expansion slated to open in 2032, both a year later than originally announced.
The 21.5 km long expressway connecting the northern parts of Singapore with the city center is expected to be completed in 2027, a year later than originally announced.
Cycle path network
The completion of cycle paths can be delayed by a year due to the lack of building materials and labor. However, the government has continued to commit to tripling routes across Singapore to around 1,300 km by 2030.
Johor Baru-Singapore fast transit system connection
The planned start of passenger traffic was postponed from the end of 2024 to the end of 2026. The 4 km long cross-border train connects Woodlands in Singapore with Bukit Chagar in Johor.
An artistic impression of the Johor Baru-Singapore rapid transit station in Bukit Chagar. PHOTO: MRT CORP
Changi Airport Terminal 5
Construction of the mega-terminal has been suspended for at least two years to allow a review of the prospects for the pandemic-hit aviation sector. It was originally scheduled to be completed in the 2030s.
On the right way
The first phase of land reclamation work for the port of Tuas is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
Deep tunnel sewage system
Work on the US $ 10 billion “expressway” for used water should be completed by 2025. About a quarter of a 100 km long conveyor system has been completed.