South Korea’s Shipbuilding Renaissance Faces Workforce Challenges

However, despite these efforts, the shipbuilding sector still faces workforce shortages. An industry spokesperson commented, "While we're ramping up foreign labor, the gap persists. We intend to continue these influxes through the year."

Maru Kim
Maru Kim

South Korea’s shipbuilding giants are riding the wave of a resurgent industry, amassing significant orders throughout the year. However, the surge has illuminated a significant workforce gap, raising concerns about their ability to fulfill the booming demand in the long run.

According to Clarksons Research, a UK-based shipping and shipbuilding research entity, the Newbuilding Price Index (NPI) touched 173 points in August. Established in 1998 with a base of 100 points reflecting average ship prices then, the NPI’s recent growth signifies a revival. This surge in the index is a breath of fresh air after nearly 15 years in the doldrums, nearing the all-time high of 191.5 points from 2008.

By mid-year, the backlog for Korean shipbuilders touched a whopping 38.8 million compensated gross tons (CGT), a metric indicating the workload to construct ships. This volume is the largest in over a decade.

This resurgence comes with its own set of challenges. Premier shipbuilders, including HD Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering, Samsung Heavy Industries, and Hanwha Ocean (previously Daewoo Shipbuilding & Maritime Engineering), are in a frantic race to fill vacancies. These gaps resulted from workforce cuts during previous industry downturns. In fact, the Korea Offshore & Shipbuilding Association had earlier predicted a shortfall of 14,000 workers by year’s end, potentially requiring an additional 45,000 to complete existing orders.

In response, governmental agencies, including the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and the Ministry of Justice, have fast-tracked visa processes for foreign workers and raised the foreign worker cap from 20% to 30% for a two-year span. By mid-year, they had supplied over 10,000 workers, covering a substantial 70% of the predicted workforce deficit.

However, despite these efforts, the shipbuilding sector still faces workforce shortages. An industry spokesperson commented, “While we’re ramping up foreign labor, the gap persists. We intend to continue these influxes through the year.”

In a recent visit to Hanwha Ocean’s shipyard, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Choo Kyung-ho announced additional supportive policies to fortify South Korea’s maritime sector. The industry’s long-term challenge remains: attracting and retaining highly skilled workers. As a countermeasure, shipbuilders have been investing heavily in training programs and technology.

In a notable breakthrough, Samsung Heavy Industries introduced a cutting-edge high-speed welding robot, which promises to quintuple productivity in certain areas. Hanwha Ocean has also been pioneering in robotic technology, unveiling a robot that has significantly enhanced productivity and worker well-being. Not to be left behind, HD Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering has embraced automation, with a vision of establishing intelligent shipyards by the end of the decade.

While the government has eased quotas for foreign low-skilled workers (E-9) for the shipbuilding sector this year, ground realities suggest that these measures may not be wholly effective. The industry’s acute labor shortage is such that quota regulations are often overlooked. Even when foreign workers are employed, the immediate availability of experienced artisans required by shipbuilding companies is sparse. After undergoing training for skills such as painting or welding, these workers, like their local counterparts, often migrate to other industries.

As South Korea’s shipbuilding industry sails into promising but challenging waters, collaborative efforts between public and private sectors become crucial to maintaining its global leadership position.

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