Raise training and pay for Hong Kong aviation technicians or face serious labour shortage, unions warn

Aviation unionists in the city warned on Tuesday that the Hong Kong International Aviation Academy failed to tackle a looming shortage of airport technicians with the third runway due for completion in 2023.

They pointed to a “mismatch” between skill needs and training, saying that the academy offered no courses for technicians despite the growing demand for such roles.

At present, 73,000 people work at the Hong Kong International Airport. Once the HK$141 billion third runway is operational, an additional 50,000 staff may be required.

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Citing a 2015 labour report by the Airport Authority, unions said 47 per cent of all job vacancies at the time comprised technician roles, followed by 40 per cent for manual jobs, 10 per cent for professional posts and 3 per cent for management positions.

“We have received complaints from airport staff that they are working round the clock these days because there is a shortage of manpower. And the third runway has not even been completed yet,” Cheung Shu-wang, chairman of the Staffs and Workers Union of Hong Kong Civil Airlines, said.

“They are worried that they will be working even longer once the runway is built.”

He criticised the aviation academy, established by the authority, for not offering training courses for technicians in fields such as aircraft maintenance. Most the courses involved management roles.

Li Wing-foo, chairman of the Hong Kong Airport Ramp Services Employees Union, said: “The courses that the aviation academy is offering will not be able to help with the operational efficiency.”

Unionist also said young people were not willing to become technicians because of the low pay.

An aircraft maintenance technician earns about HK$11,000 a month, and requires four years of training to become a full fledged professional, during which time his salary may only rise slightly to HK$15,000.

The unions called for better pay for technicians so that more people would be willing to join the industry, preventing a severe shortage of such jobs by 2023.

They also urged the MTR and bus companies to offer discounts to those who work at the airport, as transport costs can take up 10 to 15 per cent of salaries. The academy should also offer technician courses, they said.

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Speaking to the Post last month on the issue of staff salaries and retaining airport personnel, Vivian Cheung, deputy director of the Airport Authority, expressed doubts that her organisation could “solve the problem”.

On the key issue of low salaries, she said the airport would be replacing some low-wage labour intensive jobs with automation.

She said this could potentially create a demand for higher skilled jobs with better pay.

“We are working on smart airports and automation, so we can try to upgrade some of the jobs to be less labour intensive. These are other paths we are working on,” Cheung, who also leads the aviation academy, said.

The airport is currently expanding its departure terminal. New installations include automated luggage and check-in facilities, as well as replacing workers at check-in counters with machines.

Cheung said she started as an entry-level worker and rose through the ranks over 25 years to her current job. She cited herself as an example of moving up the career ladder towards a higher salary.

The airport is also looking into providing people who fail to land their dream job, alternative roles that can be just as promising in the same industry.

“There will be examples where people realise they cannot be a pilot, but they can be a mechanic. If they can’t be a mechanic, they can be a controller; or a plane dispatcher. And they can work their way up – and we do see such cases,’ Cheung said.

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