Singapore’s Productivity Priority

Martin Riddett
Singapore enjoys the reputation of delivering construction projects efficiently and to a good standard. The country’s built environment industry has good systems in place, is well resourced, has a straightforward planning system and a ‘can do’ attitude among the workforce.

So why does it take between eight and twelve days for contractors in Singapore to erect one floor in a typical high rise building, when Hong Kong takes half that time? This anomaly has become a focus for policymakers and the media, and the issue is clearly of interest to clients and project/cost managers too.

Labour productivity is a contributing factor. Productivity is relatively low in Singapore’s built environment industry, compared to some other countries. Average annual productivity growth in the industry has been 0.4 per cent since 2000, versus the national average growth of two per cent during the same period.

The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) highlights labour issues as one of the roots of the problem. There is reliance on a low-cost transient immigrant workforce, together with difficulty in attracting skilled local workers into the industry. Singapore has also suffered from a lack of investment in the training, skills and equipment that would enable productivity growth to be increased.

Fragmentation is another part of the problem. The industry is made up of small firms, with 70 per cent of contractors employing fewer than 10 people. Larger contractors are better equipped to contribute to enhanced productivity.

The Construction Productivity Roadmap was launched in 2011 by the Ministry of National Development (MND). It aims to raise productivity by 20 to 25 per cent by 2020.

The Construction Productivity Roadmap was launched in 2011 by the Ministry of National Development (MND). It aims to raise productivity by 20 to 25 per cent by 2020. Initiatives include constraints on use of foreign workers, and the introduction of the Construction Productivity and Capability Fund (CPCF), a financial incentive to encourage manpower development, technology adoption and capability building.

To address skilled labour shortages, the BCA has launched the tri-ship programme, offering apprenticeship, scholarship and sponsorship. The programme targets 1600 new entrants over the first four years. For existing workers, the BCA is offering the Multi-Skilling scheme, to encourage on-site versatility. The CoreTrade scheme will continue to provide a career progression route.

The BCA is actively encouraging investment in productive construction methods, including prefabricated components and increased mechanisation. The flagship Sport Hub is an example of a project where the benefits of these methods can be seen, using both prefabricated components and design initiatives to good effect. This project is making extensive use of BIM techniques to improve the coordination of the various design elements, thus reducing problems on site and increasing productivity.

The overall emphasis is on greater skill levels, with the ability to embrace modern methods of construction, leading to less reliance on huge numbers of unskilled workers. This is a cultural change - one that will take time and investment to achieve.